I propose to take Questions Nos. 391, 392, 420, 538 and 539 together.
The Government has always been guided by public health advice in relation to what is safe in schools. Public health remain of the view that schools are low risk environments and that the infection prevention and control measures in place in school are effective but recognise there is an ongoing need to reduce societal activity and movement to curb the spread of the virus at this time.
The CMO has made it very clear in his advices to Government which are published on gov.ie, that schools are safe environments, with very little evidence of transmission within schools, and that the majority of infections of children and adolescents occurs outside the school setting. The decision to delay the reopening of schools was in recognition of the need to reduce societal activity and movement to curb the spread of the virus at a time where there was unprecedented levels of disease transmission in the community. This was not based on a changed assessment of the risks in relation to transmission levels in schools.
Public Health have also stated that the new variants of the disease do not change the infection prevention and control measures required in schools. Schools have been supported by a funding package of almost €650 m to put in place and maintain these key infection control measures. Public Health advice is that compliance with these measures ensure that schools remain safe places for children and staff.
The vaccine protocol devised by the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (NIAC), is endorsed by the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) and signed up to by Government. The Department of Health have confirmed that those essential to Education are estimated at this time to be in the first one third of the population captured by the Vaccine Allocation Strategy. My Department has further engaged with the Department of Health requesting that consideration is given to school community as the vaccination programme is rolled out in order to accommodate front line school staff within the vaccination programme at the earliest possible opportunity.
My Department has developed a plan with the relevant education stakeholders for the phased return to in-school learning for children in primary, post-primary and special schools. From the 1 March the first four classes at primary level – junior and senior infants, first and second class – and final year Leaving Certificate students will return to school. This phase will also see a return to full attendance for children in special schools. This is in addition to the reopening of special schools on 11 February on a 50% attendance basis and all special classes reopened fully from 22 February.
The full re-opening of our schools for all students in line with public health advice remains a top priority for Government and my Department is focussing on the safe return of all remaining cohorts of pupils and students to school at the earliest opportunity in March, with the last group of post primary students set to return to school after the Easter Break.