Primary school children who are unvaccinated and have no symptoms of Covid-19 will be allowed stay in school from Monday if they are close contacts of a confirmed case.
The change is set to come into force despite 90 outbreaks of Covid-19 in schools last week.
Up to now an unvaccinated child had to restrict their movements for at least 10 days and show a clear test before returning to school.
That will now change from Monday and will mean a major reduction in the estimated 1,200 children a day who had to miss school as a result.
Fully vaccinated children and those who had Covid-19 in previous months were already exempt from restriction of movements unless they had symptoms.
The decision was made by the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) at its meeting last week.
Children with symptoms will still have to self-isolate and have a test.
Health Minister Stephen Donnelly said today he accepted the recommendations.
From Monday the following will apply:
- Automatic contact tracing of close contacts in childcare facilities and primary education will be discontinued (not including special education facilities).
- Testing of asymptomatic close contacts in childcare facilities and primary education will be discontinued (not including special education facilities).
- Children aged 12 years or under, who are identified as close contacts in childcare, educational settings, special education settings or other non-household settings and who are asymptomatic will no longer be required to restrict their movements, unless indicated by the local public health team.
- Children aged 12 years or under who are identified as household close contacts in household settings will still be required to restrict their movements and get tested, regardless of symptomatic status.
Public health advice remains that any child aged 12 years or under who displays symptoms consistent with Covid-19 should rapidly self-isolate and not attend school or to socialise until 48 hours after they are symptom free.
Mr Donnelly said: “Throughout the pandemic, we have done our utmost to protect our school communities from the serious risks posed by Covid-19. The latest data indicates that schools continue to be a low-risk environment for transmission of Covid-19. As such, I am happy to be in a position today to announce these significant updates to contact tracing in our school environments.
“If you have any concerns or notice symptoms in members of your family, the public health advice remains to self-isolate and arrange a test as soon as possible. You should not attend school, or work or socialise.”
Public health doctors believe that the Covid-19 situation in schools has now stabilised.
Parents and teachers are due to receive clearer information later this week as guidelines from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) are drawn up.
Exceptions are expected in cases where children may be particularly vulnerable to infection due to health issues.
Earlier today it emerged the number of Covid-19 outbreaks in schools more than doubled last week, striking 90 schools.
They led to 412 linked pupils and staff being infected.
Among the outbreaks 78 were primary schools, 11 in post-primary schools and one in a special education, according to the latest report from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre.
The report said there were nine outbreaks reported in childcare facilities with 33 confirmed linked cases.
One new university/college related outbreak was reported with seven confirmed linked cases.
Overall there were 198 outbreaks in different settings.
The report highlighted four new nursing home outbreaks.
However primary school teachers have objected to the changes around contact tracing from next Monday.
The INTO said the changes should be deferred “until reliable data on outbreaks in primary schools is available”.
The union said that its representatives had a “tense” weekly meeting with the Department of Education and public health advisors and told them that any change to risk assessments, contact tracing and restriction of movement protocols must be phased in and based on “complete data on mass testing in schools”.
“Media reports that contact tracing of asymptomatic pupils identified as close contacts will be abandoned next Monday could cause mass confusion for school principals, staff, parents and children, the union believes,” the union said in a statement this afternoon.
“The INTO is particularly concerned, given that it was acknowledged by the Department of Education today that there was a deficiency in the data obtained from mass testing in primary schools but were still proceeding to change Covid protection measures.”
“The union has identified a disparity between the official HSE figures which show over 4,000 children (aged 5 – 12) contracting Covid in the last fortnight, compared with the much smaller number identified in weekly school testing reports issued by the HSPC since schools reopened.
“The HSE reported yesterday that between September 6 and 19 there were 4,170 positive cases in 5 to 12-year-olds, yet the data provided by the HPSC covering August 29 to September 18 shows Covid detected in only 741 children after mass testing in 788 primary schools. However, two weeks ago, the HSE reported outbreaks in more than 800 primary schools.”
The INTO said any changes should be made after the October mid-term break when schools return on November 1.
Meanwhile Dr John Cuddihy, national clinical director of health protection, said if there are are particular outbreaks of concern in childcare, educational facilities or any other social or sporting settings, children may be still designated and managed as close contacts by public health doctors, who will carry out a risk assessment.
He said it was important to note that all infection, prevention, control and mitigation measures, as currently recommended for childcare facilities, schools and sporting and social groups remain in place.
Dr Abigail Collins, national public health clinical lead for child health, said today: “This change is being implemented because of the wide-spread uptake of Covid-19 vaccination in Ireland among those aged 12 years and older.
“Although precautions to prevent introduction and spread of the virus are still required, vaccines have proven to reduce the spread of Covid-19 and reduce the risk of severe disease and or hospitalisation.
“We are extremely conscious of the impact that periods of absence from school have on children’s educational, social and emotional well-being. This change will mean that children will now not be automatically required to restrict their movements if they are a close contact of a case of Covid-19 in any setting other than a household, once they do not have any symptoms.
“It is a positive change for children, while still enabling rapid access to testing for children who require it clinically. Public Health teams will continue to provide support to schools should it be required and testing will remain available more broadly to children should it be required on public health or clinical grounds or following a public health risk assessment”.
This article was amended on Wednesday, September 22, 2021.
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