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hse warning Birthday and Leaving Cert parties driving spread of Covid into schools

Concern students may miss June exams as a result of infection or ‘close contact’ from congregations

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Abigail Collins of the HSE. Photo: Photocall

Abigail Collins of the HSE. Photo: Photocall

Abigail Collins of the HSE. Photo: Photocall

Leaving Cert parties and children’s birthday celebrations are driving the spread of Covid into schools.

There have even been ‘back to school’ parties as students marked the return to the classroom after weeks or months of remote learning earlier this year.

Public-health experts are concerned about how such gatherings are fuelling the continuing high levels of infection and transmission into classrooms. There is particular worry that Leaving Cert students could end up excluded from the exam hall because they are infected, or a close contact of a case.

HSE public-health specialist Dr Abigail Collins told the Irish Independent they were “very concerned” about the implications for exam candidates.

“They could end up being categorised as a close contact because of other people’s behaviour, and would be ­unable to sit their exams.”

There is less than six weeks to go to the start of the Leaving Cert and most candidates have opted to sit papers in one or more subjects.

Students will not be allowed into school to do an exam if they are infected or deemed a ‘close contact’. They will have no second opportunity to sit the paper, although they will have accredited grades as back-up.

As the school year draws to a close, HSE experts also warn that if schools are running events such as sports days or graduations, parents should not be in attendance.

Dr Kevin Kelleher, HSE assistant national director for public health and child health, said “any end-of-year rituals should not be happening with parents”. Dr Kelleher also said that sports days should be on a class or pod basis, rather than involving the entire school at one time.

He added: “A school tour is fine, so long as they can walk to it.”

There was a sharp increase last week in the incidence of Covid in schools, with some forced to close or send classes home, within a week or two of returning after Easter.

A continuing problem is that some pupils, or staff, are turning up in school even though they have symptoms. Dr Collins urged a precautionary approach: “If anyone has any signs or symptoms of Covid-19, or anyone in their household does, they should isolate and contact their GP for testing, and household members restrict their movements until the results are known.”

Dr Collins said when public health teams traced back from school cases, the source was often parties. “We have had birthday parties, return-to-school parties, Leaving Cert parties. We have had all of those instances, not just in one location and not just one region or incidence. We have seen that a few times and it does have a big impact.”

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She said the parties that cropped up in their casework covered a spectrum of ages, but 18th-birthday celebrations, generally involving sixth-year students, were a definite feature.

Dr Collins said officials accepted it had been “desperately hard for children who need that social engagement and teenagers for whom it has been a difficult year”, but exposure to Covid at any gathering carried big risks.

“You might have a party with a group of children from one school, but then they all go home. They have shared Covid-19, and they often have siblings in different schools, in post-primary school, and we see that impact immediately. There might be a few schools involved.” She said while numbers may be low, it provokes anxiety for parents and schools.

Although children mix in school, observance to public-health guidance, in terms of social distancing, hand hygiene and face coverings, means there is less spread of Covid than in the community at large. But Dr Collins said that “outside of school, that doesn’t happen in the same way; children get close together and they play and they are at higher risk of sharing any infections among themselves”.

While there may be a feeling that “outdoors is fine”, she cautioned that “outdoors is better, but it doesn’t mean there is no risk to being outdoors”.

Dr Collins added: “It is really important, especially for these next few weeks, particularly for post-primary and Leaving Certs, that they carefully mind their exposures to ensure safety and well-being of all their friends, as well as themselves.”

The events to which the HSE experts referred, happened even when the country was at the height of a Level 5 lockdown. Now there is added concern that people will misread the significant easing of restrictions from next week as a signal to take an even more cavalier approach.

But Dr Kelleher said the basic rules, such as social distancing, hand-washing and face covering as appropriate, continued to apply. He said risks were associated not only with events such as parties, but any congregation, such as “on the corners and things like that, which we have all seen”.

Dr Kelleher said it was also very important that children and teens stay within their normal bubbles, such as class or family bubbles.

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