Minister insists school closures are 'not under consideration at present'

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Education Minister Norma Foley has insisted the closure of schools “is not a measure under consideration at present” despite the extended mid-term break announced for Northern Ireland.

The minister said the Government would continue to work with the Northern Ireland Executive, but added there was “no plan to extend the mid-term break in our schools”.

That was reiterated by Taoiseach Micheál Martin last night, who said the mid-term break will stay at one week – even for Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan, which will be placed under Level 4 restrictions from midnight tonight.

However, it is understood there is contingency planning for localised school lockdowns in the face of growing Covid-19 infection rates.

One scenario would involve schools in some areas being closed for an extended mid-term break.

The three border counties going under Level 4 restrictions have the highest 14-day coronavirus incidence rates.

The rate in Co Clare is also at very high levels, while Waterford, Tipperary, Carlow and Mayo are currently recording the lowest incidence.

The Government has made school opening a priority, even when the rest of society and the economy is in lockdown.

But the deteriorating public health situation ensures that the matter is kept under constant review.

Ms Foley moved yesterday to dampen speculation about an extended mid-term break, even in some areas.

She said her officials were in continuous contact with Public Health and that, yesterday, they had confirmed that schools were not driving the spread of Covid-19.

She said they knew this because, although overall cases are increasing in the community, the proportion of cases for children aged four to 18 years was stable.

“If school opening had amplified transmission, this proportion would increase as children and staff infected one another in the school setting.

“Public Health are telling us that schools should remain open and our schools are safe places,” she said.

Ms Foley said they were also closely monitoring the detection rate of extra positive cases of Covid-19 resulting from the considerable mass testing being carried out in schools, which remains at under 2pc, while the national community test positivity detection rate was over 6pc.

“This again demonstrates that schools are safe and controlled environments, and this is because schools are adhering to the Public Health guidelines developed for schools and being supported by significant additional funding,” Ms Foley said.

She said keeping schools open was “of immense importance to the well-being of society and of children in Ireland”.

“Everyone in our school communities is working hard to continue to keep our schools safe, and I think the advice is very clear, and we all need to keep washing our hands, maintaining social distance and limiting our contacts,” Ms Foley said.

She said they were following public health advice for every level in the Framework for Living with Covid-19.

This provides for schools to remain open up to Level 4, while at Level 5 it indicates that it would depend on the evidence.

Ms Foley said in a Level 5 situation they would also seek advice.

After the Northern Ireland school closure announcement, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe told RTÉ’s Claire Byrne the situation would be discussed by the Cabinet Covid sub-committee.

In Northern Ireland, schools will close for two weeks from next Monday in an extended Halloween break.

The announcement came after talks among political parties in the region’s power- sharing government that stretched from Tuesday night into yesterday morning.

“This is not the time for trite political points,” First Minister Arlene Foster told the Stormont Assembly. “This is the time for solutions.”

Health officials had warned infections would rise further if both schools and hospitality premises remained open.

Education Minister Peter Weir vowed to oppose any move to extend school closures beyond two weeks.

Sinn Féin’s Conor Murphy said his party was prepared to back a longer closure but was “content” with the decision.

Irish Independent

Source: Irish News