Wednesday, 1 December 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I thank the Deputy for giving me the opportunity to outline to the House, as he has requested, the current position regarding Covid-19 infection prevention and control measures in schools.
Ensuring that schools can continue to operate through Covid-19 has been a key priority for the Government. The Department always has been guided by our public health authorities, such as NPHET, the Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Tony Holohan, and the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, regarding the appropriate Covid-19 infection prevention and control measures in place in schools. Additional funding and staff have been made available to schools to support the implementation of these measures. Furthermore, I would like to record again that I am deeply appreciative of the strong work that has taken place and continues to take place on the ground in schools around the country to implement these public health measures.
As the Deputy will be aware, there have been a number of additional measures recommended by public health recently. First, the Department of Health and the HSE, working in collaboration with the Department of Education, recently commenced a programme in which antigen tests are made available to children in primary schools when a case of Covid-19 arises. The Deputy will be aware that there were varying views at various times in regard to the effectiveness of antigen testing, but it is now the strong recommendation of the CMO that there is a place for antigen testing as an additional tool to augment all of the other tools that are in our schools. For that reason, as public health have recommended it, it is now going forward.
Parents and guardians of a primary school child who is a confirmed case of Covid-19 following a PCR test are asked to inform their school's principal. The school principal will then inform the parents of other children in the pod of a confirmed case. Where there are two cases in a class in more than one pod within a seven-day period, antigen testing will be provided to every child in the class. No personal details of the child will be shared. These parents will be provided with the option to receive free antigen tests for their child, which they will be able to order using a freephone number for delivery to their home. School principals will not be required to gather evidence of participation or of any antigen test results.
Information materials for parents were shared with schools last week and publicised directly to parents. It has been referenced that, following recent advice from NPHET, the Government has approved the wearing of face masks by children aged nine years and older in a number of settings, including for children in third class and above in primary schools. Guidance has issued to primary schools on this basis, setting out the recommendation and the exemptions which apply in respect of children with medical or special needs. Of course, it may be difficult for some students with special needs or certain medical issues to wear face coverings. Schools know their children and are best placed to identify those children whose complex needs are such that the wearing of face coverings may not be possible for them and to discuss this with parents as required.
Schools have been provided with guidance and information for parents and children. It is expected that schools, as usual, will take a practical approach over the next day or two, as has been communicated, in order to communicate the new measures to parents and ensure parents have the opportunity to provide masks to children. The measure is being introduced on a temporary basis and is subject to review in mid-February 2022.
The Deputy will appreciate that this is a public health measure. It is guided by public health. It is the strong recommendation of the CMO and NPHET that this is an additional tool for our schools. The decision was taken yesterday but schools have been given the latitude over the coming days to engage with parents and students on the wearing of face masks. I confirm that this well-being approach is typical of the approach we have taken since the reopening of schools. It is a public health measure in the best interests of children, as advised by public health for the protection of children, individually and collectively, and the school community.