Public health doctors insist the change of rules around close contacts of a case of Covid-19 in the classroom from Monday is not a gamble.
ut few could have predicted they would have abandoned a key pandemic measure as figures show school outbreaks more than doubling last week. Parents are confused and teachers nervous. So what is behind this radical shift?
Q: Whose idea was it to change?
A: The recommendation comes from the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) which was known for its caution during the pandemic. But last week chief medical officer Tony Holohan recommended an end to automatic testing and restriction of movement for at least 10 days if a child aged 12 or younger, with no symptoms, is a close contact of a confirmed case. He named settings such as primary schools and childcare facilities. If a child who is a close contact has symptoms they should self-isolate and get a test. Testing should still apply in special education facilities but the pupil should not have to restrict movements, Nphet said.
Q: Are the HSE rules different?
A: The HSE added social and sporting groups to the list with primary schools and childcare facilities. It also modified the advice around special education schools. If a child is a close contact there they must still restrict movements. But from Monday it involves one test instead of two, and five days at home instead of 10.
Q: Will this not lead to Covid-19 cases being missed?
A: Public health doctors speak of a balance of risk. They say the potential negative impact on a child’s education and social development due to being out of school for at least 10 days – sometimes repeatedly in a term – has to be weighed against the very low chance of them picking up Covid-19 in the classroom. Widespread vaccination now means more protection of adults in the wider community. The HSE said investigation of cases suggests child-to-child transmission in schools is “uncommon.”
Around one in 20 children who were primary school close contacts tested positive in the last week. It is unclear if they picked up the virus at school. The number of outbreaks in schools nearly doubled to 90 last week and teachers say that is probably an underestimate. So there is some uncertainty about what will happen to school spread from Monday.
Q: Is there more clarity on what possible symptoms to look out for?
A: Earlier this week a conflict emerged over whether a runny nose in a child was enough to keep them off school. The HSE has now said a runny nose is not cause to keep a child at home. A runny nose on its own is not enough to exclude a child from activities, but if the child is ‘off form’ or not feeling themselves and has a runny nose they should stay home and be observed. Look out for fever, dry cough, headache or sore throat. Children are more likely than adults to have no symptoms or have mild disease. If they are a close contact of someone in a household they must have a test and restrict movements as per normal. This is because Covid-19 spreads more easily in households than in school.
Q: What will it mean for school principals?
A :They will not have to notify the HSE of a positive Covid-19 case. Unless there are several cases in a class public health teams will no longer visit a school and risk assess for who is a close contact. Teachers are being told to closely observe children themselves. Schools have been told it is more essential than ever to have mitigation measures in place. Public health teams will continue to visit special schools when a positive case is reported. However, there is still clarity needed in schools where children with special needs are in mainstream education.