Wednesday, 1 December 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
It is fair to say that school communities around Ireland are this morning grappling with another chaotic management of messaging and leadership from the Department of Education. The Minister, Deputy Foley, and I are in absolute agreement that it is incredibly important that schools remain open. It is profoundly damaging for children when schools are closed. We know that when they were closed it was very difficult for students, particularly those in disadvantaged areas and those with additional needs, to get the type of educational services they needed.
For the past 18 months, the Department and the Government have been saying, "Schools are safe", "Schools are safe", "Schools are safe". Last month, I stood here and asked the Minister and the Government to stop saying that, but they continue to repeat that schools are safe. Last week, we heard a new line from NPHET, that is, that it never said that schools are safe. Having taken five days to consider what NPHET has suggested in terms of mask-wearing for nine-year-olds, from third class upwards in primary schools, we get an overnight diktat from the Department of Education, delivered with all of the subtlety and compassion of a gas bill. This morning, principals have to police mask-wearing by nine-year-olds, from third class upwards, without any sense of what the legal implications are if a parent was to refuse, no sense of a lead-in period and an absolute absence of commentary, guidance or leadership from the Minister.
All we needed last night was a video message or other communication from the political leader of education in Ireland acknowledging that this change is difficult, telling parents that they are part of the solution and asking them to talk to their children about wearing masks - children have seen adults wearing masks - and telling them that the reason for that is we are trying to make sure that people do not get sick, that they can help us in that regard, that they should not feel anxious or worried, that we will get through this together and that they are part of the solution. Instead, we got a classic, soulless communication, a follow-up to a communication from the Chief Medical Officer, CMO, Dr. Tony Holohan, and NPHET to each individual school stating that this change was required to come into effect today. After everything schools have been through, the Minister being asked last April to do something around antigen testing, but doing nothing about it until this week, all of the failures of communication heretofore and the Minister and Government parroting the line, "Schools are safe", "Schools are safe", "Schools are safe", they have given principals and school communities 16 hours to get their act together to enforce a diktat, a requirement from the Department of Education on face mask wearing among, potentially, very anxious children, with zero compassion and zero leadership from that Department.
The Government has been described as a bad debs committee. That is the best description I can come up with this morning. I would like the Minister to respond to that and to speak not just to me, but to take this opportunity to speak to the children of Ireland who may see this contribution later today.
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.
The Minister cannot stand here and tell us it is a public health measure and that is just the way it goes. She has said a practical approach is expected over the next day or two. What kind of leadership is that? What kind of certainty is that? What legal basis is there for this? What happens if somebody comes to the school gate and refuses for their child to wear a mask. What does the principal do then? Does the Minister what principals should do in such circumstances, and has she informed them of this in the 16 hours given for them to prepare for this measure? We all know we are trying to protect people from getting sick, hospitalised and ending up in ICU. We know what the point is. Government Members were the ones telling us for the last 18 months that schools were safe while school communities, principals and managers were screaming out for support. I think the Department is depending on the goodwill of principals, who are hardwired to ensure they defend the reputation of their schools at all costs in the school community, to ensure there are not high anxiety levels among their student body or parent body and to keep the show on the road, rather than telling the truth of what is happening.
The Department expects a practical approach over the next day or two. There is no understanding of legal implications, no reference to the potential for HEPA filters to be put in schools and no understanding of the heating bills that schools are facing. There was no leadership from the Minister last night. Please do not throw it back at us and say we are somehow not adhering to public health advice when the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, was sketchy on that last night. Will the Minister, Deputy Foley, take the opportunity to show some leadership and give some guidance to schools, school communities and principals who are doing their best to deal with anxious children, who the Minister has let down in this regard? What they needed last night was a voice of compassion, care and leadership from the political face of education in Ireland.
I thank the Deputy again for giving me the opportunity to outline to the House these measures. I reiterate that if there are outbreaks of concern in educational facilities, public health teams continue to provide support to schools where required and the measures we have implemented in schools are on the back of expert public health advice. The on-the-ground experience of public health doctors has been and remains that schools are relatively low-risk environments in terms of transmission and have not been a driver of transmission in children over the course of the pandemic. That has been reiterated by our CMO and NPHET on an ongoing basis.
The Government is committed to supporting schools and keeping them open for all children as we continue to live with Covid-19. The aim of all the Covid-19 infection prevention and control measures in place in schools is to support schools to operate safely and prevent the introduction and onward transmission of Covid-19 among the school community.
I will speak specifically on the measures confirmed by the Government yesterday and the guidelines issued to schools. It is important because I have heard from the Deputy and others about the necessity to get the guidelines in place as a matter of urgency. Guidelines are required-----
In relation to there being an opportunity for schools to take a flexible approach, as they always do, they have that flexibility in the coming days. The vast majority of parents are aware, as I am, that many children wore masks on the word of the CMO last week. We are taking an approach advised by public health. The measure is regarded as an additional tool for the benefit of our schools and we are implementing it. We ask parents to co-operate as they have done magnificently up to this point. I have no doubt they will do so going forward. It is operating seamlessly at second level. This is a mirror reflection of a measure regarded by public health as a public health measure.
On resources going into schools, about which the Deputy made an inference, over €700 million has been expended on resources being made available to schools for a variety of infection prevention and control measures. Ventilation is considered on a case-by-case basis, as the Deputy will appreciate, because no two schools have the same requirements. It is the strong advice that natural ventilation is best but where there are specific issues, the Department has engaged on a case-by-case basis with schools, whether it is for increased vents, windows or whatever. Moneys have been paid, work has been done and if HEPA filters are required, that is also a measure.