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Niamh O'Beirne

Niamh O'Beirne

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Vaccinated pupils will not have to stay home if they are a close contact of a Covid case in school, but unvaccinated children will have to take time out of class.

The HSE is planning to allow vaccinated children be exempt from taking a test and restricting their movements for 10 to 14 days as long they themselves have no symptoms.

The new divide between vaccinated and unvaccinated pupils will emerge in second- level schools next month.

It would also apply in a primary school if a 12-year-old is fully vaccinated.

It will mark a departure from how schools have been operating since the start of the ­pandemic.

After a public health assessment, unvaccinated children who are close contacts will still have to opt in for a test and not go to school for 10 to 14 days.

Exemption from Covid-19 tests and restriction of movement currently applies to fully vaccinated adults and was unchanged after a review this week.

The exemption is expected to be part of new protocols to be drawn up with education officials as schools enter a new era of vaccinated and unvaccinated children over 12 in the early stages of the new academic year.

It comes as the number of children aged 12-15 registering for a vaccine hit 71,000 yesterday, with vaccination centres giving the first jabs to this age group today. A spokesperson for the HSE said: “The HSE continues to engage with the Department of Education and we are looking at possible guidance in advance of schools returning after the summer period.”

Niamh O’Beirne, the HSE’s head of testing and tracing, said a review was carried out this week to see if there should be a change of policy around vaccinated people.

“Currently people who are close contacts and fully vaccinated do not have to restrict their movements unless symptomatic,” she said.

If children were deemed a close contact in the last school year, they had no choice but to restrict their movements for 14 days, from when they were last near the infected person.

They could stop restricting their movements if they opted for a test and were negative after 10 days of being in contact with the confirmed case.

HSE public health experts will assess the situation when suspected school cases are reported and will make decisions around who should stay home.

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Department of Education officials are to draw up protocols along with HSE public health officials before the start of the new school year.

The Department of Education said in the event of pupils having to self-isolate or restrict their movements, all schools should have an action plan for supporting the continuity of learning, using digital technology where possible.

The spokesperson said such contingency planning would be in line with the guidance provided to schools last year.

Teacher unions are keeping up pressure on the department to reconsider the return to school of pregnant teachers, particularly those up to 14 weeks pregnant, who are not being vaccinated. Meanwhile, the delivery of carbon dioxide (CO2) monitors to schools will start on Monday, August 23, in a move to measure levels of ventilation and reduce the risk of airborne coronavirus.

The peak number of outbreaks in secondary schools after their Easter reopening last term was 61 in one week.

It comes amid concern at 1,978 new confirmed cases of Covid-19 yesterday.

There was also a rise in the number of Covid-19 patients in hospital to 221 and an increase in those seriously ill in intensive care to 43.

Deputy chief medical officer Ronan Glynn said there had been more than 10,000 cases in the past week, with cases in ICU almost as high as the peak of the second wave in October.

Cases are particularly high in those aged 16-29 years, but are rising across all age groups.

“While vaccination has very positively impacted on the proportion of positive cases who end up in hospital or critical care, the high and increasing incidence will result in a significant number of people getting very sick,” Dr Glynn said.

“At the peak of the second wave in October, 47 were in critical care. Today we have 43, with eight new admissions in the last 24 hours.

“If you plan to socialise this weekend, risk assess your plans. Meet up in small groups, outdoors and avoid crowds.”

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