Jess Casey: Teachers struggling to deal with Covid concerns in the classroom

Despite schools taking steps to stop Covid-19 emerging in classrooms, cases have been recorded, and members of the school community are concerned about exposure 
Jess Casey: Teachers struggling to deal with Covid concerns in the classroom

Teachers are concerned at what they see as a disparity between how close contacts are determined in a classroom, and outside school.

Not classifying vulnerable students as close contacts of a special needs assistant (SNA) who worked side-by-side with them goes against the public understanding of the term. 

Schools are taking all appropriate measures to prevent cases of Covid-19 in the classrooms but inevitably, as elsewhere, cases have emerged.

Given that the Dáil was abruptly suspended last month while Health Minister Stephen Donnelly rightly self-isolated, many might wonder how that squares with the policy in schools, where a class or a year group might not necessarily have to restrict their movements if a classmate tests positive.

Similarly, many teachers are wondering how schools could stay running in level five, when all indoor events or gatherings would be restricted. 

It is this kind of disconnect that contributes to anxiety and concern among many school staff, which is growing despite public health officials advising that community transmission is the biggest threat to schools, not the other way around. 

The Irish Examiner spoke to people working in schools about concerns including the fear of not being classified as a close contact, and not being told about a case, which could then have ramifications for vulnerable family members. 

One staff member who tested positive for Covid-19 said a colleague with whom she works closely was not considered a close contact because they both wear masks in the classroom they share. 

“When I got my result, I rang my boss, who was great. I was hysterical, and they got on to the HSE," she said.

The HSE advised her to ring a number to alert the Covid app which would in turn alert her close contacts. When she tried to call the number, it was obsolete, she said.

The HSE didn’t get back to the school until the following evening. That meant any of my close contacts in the school went back in and carried on with their day

The stress was "horrendous", she said. But, thankfully, no additional cases of Covid-19 emerged.

One school cleaner said she wasn't given PPE. "We are afraid," she said. "The scariest bit is knowing that you probably won’t be told if there is a case." 

A member of staff at a pre-school said that the staff at the private facility where she works are not allowed to wear masks. 

She and her colleagues are unsure what the procedure is if there is a confirmed case. 

“We are presuming it’s the same as everyone else; that if we are deemed a close contact, we will be told. But up until then, it's at the discretion of the parents to even tell us if the child is being tested," she said.

Among teachers, the main concern is what they see as a disparity between how close contacts are determined in a classroom, and outside school.

“I understand that schools have to follow the directions of the HSE,” the staff member said. 

"But if I wasn’t in a classroom, I would be classified as a close contact. If a child was at a birthday party [with me], they’d be classified as a close contact.” 

When a case of Covid-19 is associated with a school, public health works directly with the person, or the family of a child if it is more appropriate, and asks them about their contacts. 

They also discuss the matter directly with the school and undertake a public-health risk assessment. 

According to the HSE, this risk assessment is undertaken for any confirmed case of Covid “who has been within an educational facility whilst infectious".

“This is classified as 48 hours before the onset of symptoms for cases symptomatic with Covid-19, and 24 hours before the test for Covid-19 was taken, for those who are asymptomatic with Covid-19.”

Recommended measures, such as mass testing or the exclusion of staff or pupils, are undertaken following the risk assessment. Responses differ depending on each circumstance, the HSE said.

Close contacts for both students and staff are also determined during this assessment. “These close contacts are then asked to restrict their movements and be tested for Covid-19, as per national guidance for close contacts.”

One school staff member who tested positive for Covid-19 said a colleague with whom she works closely was not considered a close contact because they both wear masks in the classroom they share. 
One school staff member who tested positive for Covid-19 said a colleague with whom she works closely was not considered a close contact because they both wear masks in the classroom they share. 

Before schools reopened, it was flagged that there would not be a policy in place to "blanket-test" whole classes or year groups in schools, and that entire schools would not necessarily be shut down in the case of an outbreak. 

This strategy is close to what has been adopted elsewhere in Europe, including in Germany and France. 

As per public-health guidelines and doctor-patient confidentiality, no other children, parents, family, or teachers are informed of positive Covid-19 results, and close contacts are contacted directly by public health officials. 

This week, the HSE said the mass testing of almost 9,400 teachers and students across 384 facilities had led to a positivity rate of 1.9%, about one third of what it is in the general public.

Also this week, the HSE began sending text messages to parents and guardians of children identified as close contacts.

This new process is to ensure families are informed as quickly as possible, allowing them to be aware of their child’s status and to take actions to care for them, a spokeswoman added.

Despite the available evidence to date, more and more people are turning to social media to discuss the issue. A Facebook group set up before the beginning of the school term to share details of confirmed cases in Irish school communities now has more than 100,000 members.

The HSE has asked people not to share such information online, in the fear it will lead to ‘stigmatisation’ and will stop people from coming forward with symptoms. 

Martina Broe, one of the group’s administrators, believes that anxiety and what parents feel is a lack of communication is instead spurring more and more to look online.

“It’s a lack of communication, and a lack of understanding,” she said. 

Parents also see that teachers are under extreme pressure at the moment, she added. 

“Of course they will worry. When parents ring schools, they are told they have to ring the HSE. When they ring the HSE, they say we can’t talk to you about this.”

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