No changes are needed to the current infection prevention and control measures for schools, despite the new variants of Covid-19, a webinar for teachers and special needs assistants (SNAs) has heard.
In light of plans to partially reopen schools this week, thousands of teachers, principals and SNAs attended a virtual meeting on Monday afternoon, hosted by the Department of Education and public health officials from the HSE.
This included Dr Abigail Collins, a public health consultant and the HSE Covid-19 lead on schools, and Dr Kevin Kelleher, the HSE assistant national director for public health.
The level of concern and anger amongst those attending was clear from the hundreds of messages sent to the livestream’s chat consistently throughout the webinar.
The meeting heard the public health teams are “absolutely committed” to getting children with special educational needs back to school. “What we witnessed last spring was really problematic in terms of this group of children,” Dr Kevin Kelleher said.
When asked if changes were necessary to the current infection prevention measures in schools given the new variants, he said the variants do appear to be more transmissible.
“But actually the measures that we have been saying, that should [already be in place], are as applicable before as they are now.”
The real issue is when people let the mitigation measures slip, such as during break times, he added.
Current infection prevention and control measures in schools include hand hygiene, maintaining suitable ventilation, social distancing, public health risk assessments, masks, and ‘pods’ and ‘bubbles’, amongst other measures in place since September.
Close contacts linked to schools will be tested if there are incidents of positive cases, similar to hospitals and nursing homes, the meeting was also told.
“We will be doing public health risk assessments and we will undertake the testing of close contacts as necessary,” Dr Abigail Collins said.
“We know that with mitigation measures in place and implemented, it does help prevent onward spread with school settings.”
There are high rates of community transmission, she said, but data collected by the HSE show rates of the virus amongst school-age children have been lower than the general population.
The new variants are being monitored, she said.
Talks were continuing on Monday with the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) Central Executive Committee, as well as Fórsa, the union that represents SNAs.
Last week, the Department of Education issued guidance to schools ahead of a phased reopening this Thursday. However, both unions say they have concerns that have yet to be addressed.