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Covid-19 Pandemic

Dáil Éireann Debate, Tuesday - 7 December 2021

Tuesday, 7 December 2021

Questions (313)

Seán Sherlock


313. Deputy Sean Sherlock asked the Minister for Education if she will address matters raised in correspondence by a person (details supplied) in relation to the attendance of children in school during the pandemic. [60038/21]

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Written answers (Question to Education)

Managing ventilation is just one of a suite of public health measures in place 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. A copy of the guidance is published on the website.

The Expert Group in its report notes “very good advice is contained in the Department of Education’s Practical Steps for the Deployment of Good Ventilation Practices in Schools” And that “It must be emphasized that ventilation should be delivered as part of a layered strategy of protective measures to control the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19.”

The over-arching approach in the guidance is for schools to have windows open as fully as possible when classrooms are not in use and partially open when classrooms are in use. The Expert Group also note “consider using a portable carbon dioxide (CO2) monitor to identify areas of the school with inadequate ventilation. The Departments guidance outlines CO2 monitors can play a part in providing a useful general indication that areas/rooms may not be adequately ventilated. They can enable occupants to become familiar with the impacts of activities, outdoor weather and window openings on levels of good ventilation. The provision of portable CO2 monitors provides schools with the flexibility to focus their use to those rooms where most beneficial to inform strategies for optimising ventilation in the school. In excess of 35,400 monitors were delivered to schools nationwide at a cost of circa €4 million.

A dedicated team has been established in the Department to support schools that may have concerns about ventilation. Officers are also available to contact schools where required, walking through the steps the schools should take to deploy good ventilation practices etc. Where it is not possible for a school to access the expertise of an engineer or architect, and where necessary, a technical assessment to assist the school can be facilitated through the Department.

Schools that identify inadequate ventilation in a room can utilise their minor work grant (for minor improvements) or apply for emergency works grant assistance to address ventilation enhancements on a permanent basis.

There is no one solution that fits all scenarios, each application requires bespoke analysis and selection of the appropriate unit(s) matched to the specific room size and volume. If, following consultation with a supplier a school feels that its individual space may require specific technical specialist advice then the assistance of a Chartered Engineer or Registered Architect can be sought.

The Departments approach on good ventilation in schools, as part of a layered strategy of protective measures to control the spread of the virus, is fully consistent with Public Health advice and the Expert Group recommendations on good practices, the use of portable CO2 monitors and the targeted deployment of HEPA air filter devices where necessary for poorly ventilated areas.

The approach to supporting schools to operate safely during Covid-19 has been to follow and implement public health advice. Public Health advice remains that asymptomatic children are at low risk for transmission. Schools are controlled settings and the approach to contact tracing is risk-based in relation to the setting, age-group and the existence of other preventive measures. Public Health doctors have advised that the on the ground experience has been and remains that schools are relatively low risk environments and have not been a driver of transmission in children over the course of the pandemic. The house-hold setting is the highest risk for transmission.

Unvaccinated people of all ages who are household contacts of a case must restrict movements (and stay out of work or school) for 10 days and have a PCR test at day 0 and day 10. As of the 27th September 2021, a decision was taken by Government in line with recommendations from NPHET to cease routine contact tracing of asymptomatic close contacts in children older than 3 months to under 13 years outside of the household setting, including those attending primary educational and childcare settings.

The Department of Health and the HSE, working in collaboration with the Department of Education has introduced a programme in which antigen tests are being made available to children in primary schools.

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. 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 for delivery to their home. Tests can be ordered from a helpline operated by the HSE.

It is important that parents inform principals quickly if a child receives a PCR ‘detected’ test for Covid-19. By doing this, the choice to participate in antigen testing can be offered to other parents quickly. It is important that everyone continues to follow all the public health advice in using this programme. It is not mandatory for children to participate in antigen testing. Asymptomatic children who are in a pod where a child has tested positive for Covid-19 can continue to attend school, whether they participate in antigen testing or not. Information materials for parents and principals was shared with schools and publicised directly to parents.

Parents should not be using antigen testing as a green light test if their children have symptoms. The core message is and remains to parents and to school authorities that any child with a symptom suggestive of COVID-19 should not be going into school. They need to stay at home, and they need to get PCR tested.

My Department has recently implemented a range of measures to address the supply of substitute teacher in primary schools, including a significant increase in teachers on the primary school supply panels, postponing CPD for teachers and, with the cooperation of the HEIs and the Teaching Council, supporting the availability of student teachers to undertake substitute work.

Information on these and other measures has been communicated to primary schools in Circular 50/2021 COVID-19 (Operational Supports for primary schools for 2021/2022) and Information Note SD 0001/2021 (Further supplementary measures to increase the availability of substitute teachers for recognised primary schools – 2021/2022 school year )