The proportion of schoolchildren who tested positive ranged from 0.1 per cent in Co Kerry to 4 per cent in Co Waterford. Photograph: iStock
Primary schools are creaking at the seams due to “soaring” Covid-19 transmission rates and a substitution cover crisis, according to the country’s largest teachers’ union.
The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) said there has been a trebling in the number of positive cases among primary school-aged children since routine contact tracing ended in late September.
A survey it conducted of almost 900 primary schools found that almost 2 per cent (or just over 3,700 of an estimated 230,000 pupils) contracted Covid-19 over a 16-day period this month.
The proportion of children who tested positive ranged from 0.1 per cent in Kerry to 4 per cent in Waterford.
In addition, the survey found that a substitute was not available for almost a third of days when teachers were out sick or self-isolating. This amounted to almost 3,700 substitutable days which were not covered during the 16-day period.
On days where a substitute was available, only half of posts were filled by a registered primary teacher.
INTO general secretary John Boyle said “soaring transmission levels” in schools are an “indictment of the premature removal of testing and contact tracing from our primary schools, and of the frustrating failure to move quickly to deploy antigen testing”.
However, health authorities say risk of onward transmission from undetected asymptomatic cases within the school setting “remains low”.
A report by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre last week said while there were 16 notified outbreaks associated with schools during the latest seven-day period, most involved a small number of cases.
It confirmed, however, that the rate of infection among children aged five to 12 years of age has continued to surge, climbing to 767 per 100,000 from November 7th to November 13th, up from 432 per 100,000 a fortnight prior to that.
Minister for Education Normal Foley is expected to publish detailed guidance for parents and schools on Monday about how the antigen testing programme in primary schools will operate when it begins on November 29th.
The INTO, meanwhile, wants a review of rules on whether face masks should be worn, along with the roll-out of vaccines for under-12 and air filters for schools with poor ventilation.
“ The cessation of public health risk assessments following primary school outbreaks, and the resulting unavailability of weekly reports detailing infection levels from September 27th, has concealed the escalation of positive case numbers among pupils and staff in primary schools,” Mr Boyle said.
“It simply cannot be a coincidence that the number of 5–12-year-old children contracting the virus has trebled since crucial public health supports were removed from the primary sector less than two months ago.”
He said teachers and principals has been “abandoned” and left to protect themselves and their unmasked, unvaccinated pupils from the impact of the highest wave of infection in their schools since the pandemic began.
Ms Foley, however, has said that her department has been led by public health advice and invested record sums in providing risk-mitigation measures and additional substitution cover.