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Schools due to reopen post-Christmas, but minister 'ready to follow public health advice'

‘We need to be resilient, we always follow public health advice to ensure our schools can operate’ – Education Minister
Education Minister Norma Foley

Education Minister Norma Foley

Katherine Donnelly and Denise Calnan

Education Minister Norma Foley met school representatives today to discuss re-opening after Christmas.

The Department of Education has no plans to delay the re-opening, but arrangements for the new term will be kept under close review over Christmas.

The HSE’s chief clinical officer Dr Colm Henry also attended the meeting with teacher unions and school management bodies at both primary and post-primary level.

Schools close today for a two week break and are due to return on January 6.

Many parents kept children at home in the final few days of term, in the hope of limiting exposure to risk ahead of Christmas family gatherings.

But once Christmas is over, the focus will be on returning to a normal routine.

The minister and Dr Henry committed to a review of public health measures for schools and there will be further engagement with education partners over the holidays. A further meeting is expected to take place next week.

A spokesperson for the minister said there was also a commitment to a public awareness campaign, to be rolled out over the coming weeks.

That will be targeted at parents, to minimise the risk of infection entering schools.

Public health chiefs have warned of a spiral in Covid incidence in coming weeks due to the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

While the Government has imposed restrictions on other sections of society until the end of January to limit the spread, there is a determination to keep education open .

Public health chiefs are adamant that most infection happens in the household or community and while transmission occurs in schools they are lower risk environments.

The past few months have seen a particularly high incidence of Covid among 5-12 year olds. This age group is not yet vaccinated, but an inoculation programme is now being rolled out.

Schools are also returning in the new year with a budget to purchase HEPA filters to help keep air clean.

However, the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) is seeking the “reintroduction of significant public health supports in schools.”

The union wants a return to a system of testing and contact tracing of Covid close contacts similar to what was in place in primary schools up to the end of September

After today’s meeting, the INTO said public health officials had agreed to review supports for primary schools, including addressing reporting mechanisms and response times in the case of outbreaks in these schools.

Speaking on RTÉ Radio One’s News at One, Education Minister said the department is always ready to follow public health advice.

"We have learned there are twists and turns,” the minister said of the pandemic.

"We need to be resilient, we always follow public health advice to ensure our schools can operate.

"In fairness to the school community, they have done the work on the ground. Whatever measures are suggested, we will implement them.”

The minister said she learned in the meeting this morning that the incidence rate is now declining in the cohort of 5-11 year olds.

She said a total of 90,000 antigen tests have been delivered to schools, and completed tests returned a 3.6pc positivity rate.

Follow-on PCR tests returned a positivity rate of just over 2pc.

“That’s very reassuring for the school community,” she said.

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