HSE needs to help us more, say worried principals

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Principals have been left wondering about the feasibility of keeping schools open during the pandemic. The reopening of a school in north Kerry last week has them asking: ‘How should schools adapt if their area is hit by a Covid-19 spike?’

Parents of children at Tarbert Comprehensive School received a letter 10 days ago telling them a student had tested positive for Covid-19.

Four days later, on October 19, parents got three more missives from principal Richard Prendiville. The first was issued at 10am and confirmed there had been more Covid-19 cases. He said all were linked to the original case and “with exposure to the virus outside of the school environment”.

Prendiville followed up at 4pm after being made aware “offensive messaging has been directed at and about some of our students in regard to positive Covid testing”. He wanted it to stop.

Two-and-a-half hours later, parents and the Department of Education received a bombshell. The school was to close, effective immediately, based on the principal’s “growing concern” and consultation with the chair of the board of management. He said the move was needed to protect the entire school community and was partly driven by an alarming increase in cases locally. He also cited a failure by some to inform the school that members of their families had tested positive.

There had been seven confirmed cases in the school population over the five days since the first positive test. The HSE identified 45 close contacts among students who would have to self-isolate. A day later, Prendiville was ordered to reopen by the department.

He has received support from teachers and their representative associations. Most think he made the right call. They felt his pain because schools report huge waiting times when they make contact with public health teams once a positive case has been recorded among students.

National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals president Michael Cregan said schools’ experiences with the HSE had been “appalling”.

“If a child is tested and it comes back positive then the question for me at that stage is who do I start taking out of class? We just need to be able to ring the HSE and ask: ‘Please advise us on what to do?’

“They are public health doctors and nurses. That advice and expertise would be of huge benefit. The reality is I am not a doctor. We are making calls that we feel we are not qualified to do.”

One principal, who asked not to be identified to protect the anonymity of his pupils, told the Sunday Independent he took 20 children out of a class last week because he was waiting four days for the HSE to call him back.

Cregan said principals need direct and rapid access to public health teams to prevent such incidents. HSE officials and the Department of Education are working to set up such a team this week.

Ventilation is another issue. The department advice is to open windows during break times and 15 minutes before and after class. However, with students in rooms for much of the day, schools feel they need windows open while children are learning.

Many are leaving doors and windows open constantly as fresh air passing through a room is seen as vital for managing Covid-19. By the time schools are due back from mid-term break in just over a week, the weather will be about to get colder.

“There is no point saving us from Covid if we all get pneumonia,” Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) general secretary Michael Gillespie said.

While teachers and their unions say they want to keep classrooms open, they are not shy about highlighting the challenges in doing so.

“I think it’s going to get more difficult [to stay open]” Cregan said. “Substitute cover is another huge problem. Because of the HSE delays, if a teacher is a close contact they are out of work for 14 days but some areas have little cover available.”

The department says there are no plans to close schools after mid-term and Nphet advise they should stay open – but if there are no teachers, there is no teaching.

This weekend the Association of Secondary Teachers, Ireland (ASTI) said there needs to be “sustainable second-level education provision” but asked if this is possible.

“We are questioning whether safety measures put in place in schools in August are still appropriate in the context of Level 5 restrictions and the growth in community transmission throughout the country,” a spokeswoman said.

At primary level, Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) general secretary John Boyle said he “is growing increasingly concerned that public health precautions for teachers are inadequate”.

“Many primary teachers have underlying health conditions or have family members whose health is at risk from Covid-19,” he added.

“The threat associated with rising levels of infection in communities is leading to apprehension and anxiety among school staff.”

The HSE said a rise in case numbers has challenged its community-based teams. To improve turnaround times for Covid-19 tests, it began sending text messages to parents of children who have been identified as close contacts in schools. It insists outbreaks within schools remain low.

Up to last Friday morning, almost 16,000 Covid-19 tests had been carried out in 634 schools since they reopened.

This led to 443 cases being detected, less than 3pc of all tests.

However, more than 600 pupils were still waiting on test results this weekend.

“We want schools to stay open, and cases in schools are low for now, but unless these systems improve you fear it will get harder,” said the TUI’s Gillespie.

Source: Irish News