Tuesday, 23 November 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions (Resumed) - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
56. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills if clarity will be provided on the Covid-19 safety measures in school settings, including the potential use of filtration devices and all other measures required. [57257/21]
I am asking this question on behalf of my party colleague, Deputy Ó Laoghaire, who has been unavoidably detained tonight. We have known for some time now that Covid-19 is an airborne virus and that ventilation, including air filtration, has a key role to play in protecting students and staff in our schools. Sinn Féin has been calling for adequate ventilation measures for the guts of a year now. Will the Minister commit to providing high efficiency particulate absorbing, HEPA, air filtration devices for every classroom that needs them? If not, why not?
Ensuring schools can operate safely has been a key priority for me as Minister for Education. My Department has always been guided by public health advice on appropriate Covid-19 infection prevention and control measures in our schools. These measures protect students, their parents and school staff and are effective. Public health advice is that the two most important actions to prevent the introduction and spread of Covid-19 and other respiratory viruses are ensuring no one with new onset symptoms attends school and all recommended infection prevention and control measures are in place in line with school Covid response plans.
Each school was provided with an updated Covid-19 response plan in advance of the return to school. Significant additional resources of €639 million were put into schools in the previous academic year to keep schools safe. Further funding of €57.6 million has been paid by way of Covid-19 capitation to schools in September for the implementation of infection prevention and control measures for this term alone. This funding will cater for school costs related to hand hygiene measures, personal protective equipment, PPE, requirements, enhanced cleaning supports and supervision.
At primary level, additional management resources for principal release days were provided for principals and deputy principals. Teacher supply panels were also expanded to cover the majority of primary schools nationwide, and a recent review saw an additional 100 teaching posts added, resulting in approximately 480 teaching posts on these panels available to provide substitute cover in schools At post-primary level, more than 1,000 teaching posts were provided to support social distancing within classrooms, to provide for enhanced supervision arrangements to manage and prevent congregation of large groups of students, and to ensure the careful movement in a socially distant manner to classes for specialist subjects where it is neither practical nor possible to remain in the classroom. This funding also included additional posts for guidance provision.
Managing ventilation is also an important part of the measures to keep our schools safe. Updated guidance for schools on practical steps for the deployment of good ventilation practices in schools was provided at the end of May following the work of an expert group that carefully considered the role of ventilation in managing Covid-19. The Department's guidance is clear that where the recommended measures have been undertaken and poor ventilation continues to exist in a particular room, air cleaners may be considered as an additional measure in conjunction with the other methods of ventilation that are available.
We all want schools to be open and functioning well but we cannot pretend Covid-19 is not in our schools. Too often the Department seems to minimise these issues. According to a principal in Mayo, 15% of one school's students are at home with Covid-19. If education remaining open is as important as we say it is, surely we should be throwing the kitchen sink at it. While I acknowledge the ventilation measures the Minister has outlined, CO2 monitors alone are not enough to ensure schools remain open safely and functioning well. It is crunch time and I am urging the Minister to go back to her Department and seriously examine the role HEPA filters can play here. Sinn Féin wants HEPA filter systems in all classrooms and the Government needs to resource schools to put them in place. This would cost less than €30 million. The Department of Education needs to provide rapid access and must publish costings. We have known for a long time that ventilation is a crucial issue and the Minister needs to do everything she can to keep classrooms as safe as possible.
I also want to discuss antigen testing and the tracing regime that was announced last week.
At the outset I want to be very clear that we have followed public health advice and guidance in our schools. It is the expert view of public health officials that our schools are places of low transmission, largely because of the very significant and substantial infection prevention and control measures that are in place in schools.
Specifically on the points made by the Deputy on CO2 monitors, these were suggested and are available in our schools. Equally, in terms of ventilation we have been very clear at every point that if there are issues with ventilation, they can and will be addressed. Public health officials have been very clear in telling us that natural ventilation is the most important type of ventilation, but where there are specific issues with a vent or a window or more substantial issues, we have a technical team available to schools. Schools can apply for emergency works funding, which they have done and they have been supported in doing so. All measures that are required in terms of ventilation are being put in place in schools, whatever those measures might be.
Principals are already at the end of their tether and now it seems responsibility for contact tracing will fall to them and to parents. I urge the Minister to ask the HSE to ensure public health teams have a significant role in contact tracing in our schools. We need school-specific contact tracing. Many school staff are concerned by the details of the antigen testing plan. They are rightly asking what protections, in the context of antigen testing, are in place for them. Given school staff are not part of classroom pods, is there is any possibility of staff receiving antigen tests? There are further concerns about delays between children being identified as pod close contacts and receiving antigen tests in the post. The advice is children should continue to go to school unless they have a positive antigen test. This means children who may have Covid-19 may continue to attend school for days while waiting for antigen tests in the post. What has the Minister done to ensure rapid access to antigen testing? Has she examined the possibility of tests being delivered directly to schools or collected from a HSE location?
Again, to reiterate, at the risk of repeating myself, we follow best practice public health advice in our schools. Indeed, that is what we have done in wider society also. The Deputy is aware it is the expert judgment of the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, that there is now a role for antigen testing in our schools and the HSE has been charged with the responsibility of rolling that out.
The Deputy will be aware that if a child tests positive, parents are being asked to inform the principal. In turn, the principal is being asked to inform the parents of the children in that child's pod, without giving away any personal details. If there are more than two outbreaks in a classroom within a seven-day period, apart from the original pod, antigen testing will be made available to the entire class. In that instance, accommodation will be made for staff members related to the pod or the class.
In terms of the mechanism of receiving tests in the post, the Deputy will be aware this is the current situation regarding wider society. There is no question of principals or anyone else in the school sector being asked to do contact tracing. Public health teams remain available to schools where the need arises.