Schools will reopen on Thursday, department confirms

ASTI call comes as ministers concede privately that Nphet advice on close contacts is 'disproportionate and unfeasible'
Schools will reopen on Thursday, department confirms

Minister for Education Norma Foley Foley said a combination of factors including the vaccine rollout and the lower hospital numbers mean the country is in a different space to last year. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins

The Department of Education has confirmed that schools will reopen this Thursday as planned.

The decision was reached following meetings between the Minister for Education Norma Foley, representatives from public health, the HSE and education stakeholders.

The HSE's Dr Colm Henry, who attended the meeting, said there was no public health rationale to delaying reopening of schools.

The meeting heard that Covid-19 mitigation measures in place in schools have been reviewed and will remain in place in the coming term.

It was said that public health officials believe these measures are effective and appropriate.

Ahead of the reopening, the meeting was told schools have been provided with guidance on maintaining good ventilation while parents and students are being given guidance on ensuring symptomatic students and household close contacts do not attend school.

While the country’s schools will re-open, it is accepted by Ms Foley that individual classes may be sent home as a result of a shortage of teachers in the coming days and weeks.

Speaking during a meeting with teachers’ unions, management boards and parents’ groups, Ms Foley said a combination of factors including the vaccine rollout and the lower hospital numbers mean the country is in a different space to last year.

The meeting started at 3pm and attendees were told that public health officials have reviewed the Covid-19 mitigation measures and can see no reason why schools can’t reopen as planned.

This is despite concerns being expressed by the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI) about the prevalence of the Omicron variant and a call for a staggered return.

“The same heat isn’t there as it was last January and the hospitals are so much lower than last year. Also all of the teachers will have had a booster shot, or the option of one,” said the source.

However it was acknowledged there will be shortages of teachers and the focus is on supporting schools.

“This is not about closing schools, but there may be situations where individual classes are sent home. Staffing at primary level is an issue,” the source added.

The government is looking at utilising up to 4,000 student teachers who are still available until February in order to plug short term gaps.

It is also hoped that the pending reduction on isolation periods for asymptomatic close contacts will ease the pressure.

Speaking to reporters at Government Buildings earlier today, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said the rules for close contacts were causing problems across public services, industry and critical infrastructure.

Speaking on his way into a meeting with Táoiseach Micheál Martin and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, Mr Varadkar confirmed the Government was looking at possibly changing the rules for fully-vaccinated close contacts with no symptoms and negative antigen tests.

The Irish Examiner reported on Tuesday morning the growing unease within Cabinet at the current isolation rules as advised by Dr Tony Holohan and the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet).

Mr Varadkar said Omicron wave is unfolding as anticipated and is having a serious impact, but he said it is also clear the variant is less severe.

“The sheer number of cases has led to an increase in hospital admissions but not a significant rise in ICU,” he said.

The Tánaiste said the statistics are not giving a full picture due to bank holidays and testing capacity issues.

No increase on restrictions expected as Cabinet to meet tomorrow

Today's meeting of the three party leaders comes ahead of a full Cabinet meeting tomorrow.

Party leaders will consider recent changes in US advice, which significantly relaxed the advice for close contacts.

The Irish Examiner understands there is no political appetite to increase the current level of restrictions, with cases expected to peak shortly.

However, it has also been made clear that there will be no easing of restrictions before the end of January to allow the Omicron variant peak to pass.

The comments from Mr Varadkar were earlier echoed by Justice Minister Helen McEntee, who insisted it is the “clear intention” that schools will reopen on Thursday despite strong opposition from teachers’ unions.

Ms McEntee said the country is in a very different place compared to this time last year because of the vaccination programme which has spared the hospital system from being overwhelmed.

She said Cabinet will hear an update from Education Minister Norma Foley tomorrow but made clear it is the intention that all schools will return as planned.

Speaking on her local radio station, LMFM, Ms McEntee said the Government has made additional monies available for Hepa filters to improve ventilation in schools but acknowledged the pressure on the education system due to staff absences.

Ms McEntee said it is her expectation that there will be a change to the requirement of fully vaccinated close contacts to restrict their movements for 10 days at Cabinet, following a meeting of the three party leaders in Government later today.

The Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland has called for the planned reopening of schools this week to be “delayed and staggered”.
The Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland has called for the planned reopening of schools this week to be “delayed and staggered”.

Last night, the Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland (ASTI) called for the planned reopening of schools this week to be “delayed and staggered” ahead of its meeting today with Department of Health and public health officials.

Citing the unease of members regarding health and safety and expected teacher shortages, the union last night called for “appropriate safety measures” to be put in place, including:

  • A phased and staggered reopening of schools, prioritising exam classes;
  • Making antigen tests available for all parents and children;
  • Speedy rollout of Hepa filters.

“The priority must be that students and school staff can learn and work in an environment where there are appropriate safety measures in place to protect all concerned,” said ASTI president Eamon Dennehy.

The call came as several Cabinet members insisted that children will return to the classroom this Thursday, with Covid-19 hospitalisations at a “stable, if high” number. One minister said: "I think schools will open. Not aware of any country in Europe planning to keep them closed and we’re all in much the same boat."

ASTI president Eamon Dennehy: 'The priority must be that students and school staff can learn and work in an environment where there are appropriate safety measures in place.' Picture: Dave Cullen
ASTI president Eamon Dennehy: 'The priority must be that students and school staff can learn and work in an environment where there are appropriate safety measures in place.' Picture: Dave Cullen

The General Secretary of the Teachers' Union of Ireland (TUI) has called for clarity on isolation measures so that it can be determined if schools can reopen on Thursday.

Michael Gillespie said that public health advice was needed about the duration of self-isolation times so teachers and students will know if they can return to school.

“We need to get an idea of the numbers in schools that will be missing.” 

Mr Gillespie told Newstalk Breakfast that the TUI had always advocated for disadvantaged students and they were very much aware of the impact of school closures on such students. He was responding to a question about comments from the Special Rapporteur on Children who expressed concern about the impact of school closures on children.

When asked about the ASTI call for a staggered return, Mr Gillespie said it was too early to say if that would work. The situation was not “one size fits all” as schools could have different levels of attendance.

'Every effort' must be made to ensure schools reopen – Ombudsman

Dr Niall Muldoon, the Ombudsman for Children, has called for the Government to explore all options and to maintain their commitment to keep schools open.

The Ombudsman was speaking ahead of a meeting between the Department of Education and unions and said that all schools should not be treated the same.

He said that “closing schools and denying children access to in-person learning cannot be our default response”.

Dr Muldoon said that the Omicron variant “will be a challenge” but almost two years into the pandemic “we know the negative impact school closures have, not only on children’s learning, but on their social development”.

He said that the rise in cases “was not unforeseen” and that a one size fits all approach to schools is not in anyone’s interest.

“Realistically, I know that in the coming weeks there will be situations where classes or schools may have to move to online learning due to staff shortages.

“There may also be a need to make materials available to children who have tested positive or are isolating. Teachers and everyone in school communities must be supported to make this happen. They should also be provided with the equipment needed to ensure that schools remain as safe as possible for all children and staff.

“If a situation arises where school closures must be considered, all schools and students should not be treated the same, but I really hope that it does not come to that. Every effort must be made to ensure that Ireland, like most other countries in Europe, reopens our schools.”

Meanwhile, senior Cabinet sources say the requirement for asymptomatic close contacts who have booster shots to stay at home is “disproportionate” and “unfeasible”.

Ministers have called on the advice from the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) to be relaxed.

The three Coalition party leaders will meet tonight to discuss the isolation rules ahead of a Cabinet meeting tomorrow.

“The thing Nphet need to reconsider is requiring triple-vaccinated close contacts with no symptoms and negative antigens to stay at home,” a senior minister told the Irish Examiner

It’s disproportionate and is going to knock out huge amounts of the workforce. They were told it was a mistake before Christmas.

While there is a great deal of annoyance within Fine Gael ranks about the restrictions, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and his ministers are said to be “OK with the current restrictions for January as long as meeting nobody indoors doesn’t become government advice”.

“It’s what people expect and makes sense to allow hospitals and cases to peak before easing them,” said one minister.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Health Minister Stephen Donnelly have continuously adopted a “cautious approach” and backed the public health advice from Nphet.

Speaking privately, Cabinet members said there is a growing sense that, while hospitalisations are up, ICU numbers are at their lowest level in six to eight weeks and while they will rise slowly, they are well below the 130 of a few weeks ago.

“Trolley numbers ...  are running at the second lowest in 10 to 20 years at the moment: So, yes, hospitals are under real pressure but no more so than most early Januarys,” said one senior minister.

Ministers hit out at Nphet’s continued reliance on restrictions, with one saying: "Nphet does like restrictions, almost the default action for them, but we already have the toughest [restrictions] in Europe, with the exception of the Netherlands, which is in lockdown. Even there, you can receive two people a day."

The criticism went further from some: “They are not as quick to recommend stuff that works — masks, antigen tests, vaccine boosters,” another said.

Asked to explain the lack of pushback on Nphet’s demands, one minister said it was down to “an abundance of caution and no counterweight from Taoiseach’s office”.

Ibec chief executive Danny McCoy has warned of the pressure on the critical supply chain as a result of the high levels of staff being absent from the workforce because of the Omicron variant.

The number of staff absent from work in the food manufacturing and the retail distribution sectors is running at 15%-18%, he said.

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