The President of the Irish College of General Practitioners has said that if a child has sniffles and sneezes the odd time but is "otherwise well" and does not have any symptoms of Covid-19, they can go to school.

Speaking at this evening's National Public Health Emergency Team briefing, Dr Mary Favier said: "If a child is otherwise well, doesn't have any respiratory symptoms, doesn't have a cough, but just constantly sniffles and sneezes the odd time" they can and should go to school.

She said for a child who has more than that, such as a temperature, a cough or any of the symptoms that might suggest they have Covid-19 - such as being unable to taste food - they should not go to school.

She also said parents should be a little bit more vigilant this school year.

Dr Favier said children should stay at home until 48 hours until after the symptoms settle and said waiting to see "how they go" during the day is no longer okay.

She said it is apparent that there is a lot of anxiety among parents about their children returning to school.

Dr Favier said ideally children should return to school, it is ideal for their psychological and social health and for their education.

She said: "We need not lose sight of that, we need to find a way to make this work".

The Acting Chief Medical Officer urged those who have concerns or who are looking for information to log onto the return to school page on the Government website.

Dr Glynn said: "While Covid is with us, we have choices to make" and "ultimately we're trying to keep the cases low as possible for three reasons: to protect the education system, to protect the vulnerable and to protect our health care services".

He said there were 84 cases in children under 14 last week, and if nothing changes, he expects a similar number this week and next week, when many of those children are back in school.

Dr Glynn said: "The challenge is to respond to that appropriately, to listen to the appropriate information sources and to listen to what the schools are telling us.

"If there's a concern for a child in your school, you will be informed by public health teams.

"If your child is deemed to be a close contact, you will be contacted by the HSE and informed of that by the HSE".

He urged people "to please wait for that call" and not to be unduly worried "based on misinformation or anxiety".

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A consultant in infectious diseases has said she does not expect to see significant outbreaks of Covid-19 in schools after children return to classrooms.

Dr Clíona Ní Cheallaigh, a professor in clinical medicine at Trinity College Dublin and a consultant at St James' Hospital in Dublin, said she believes reopening schools is the right thing to do.

She said: "The good thing about children is they tend not to be very good at spreading Covid, unlike other diseases."

Dr Ní Cheallaigh said: "Most of the experience in European countries isn't showing outbreaks happening in schools."

She said while children may be getting the virus at home or in other settings where there are lots of adults together, it is not spreading within schools.

She said: "The evidence shows that most of the spread of the virus happens within a household, so children may get it from their parents or somebody they are living with, and bring it into school" rather than contract the virus in school.

However, Dr Ní Cheallaigh said it is really important that the public health guidelines are followed all the time in schools, so if there are isolated cases, they don't spread within the school setting.

She said alongside the new measures and protocols that are being introduced, "hand hygiene, distancing and mask-wearing, have a really important role to play and should prevent the spread of infection within schools."

She added: "There is no zero-risk thing to do, so we always have to weigh up the risks and the benefits, and the benefits to children and their parents of having them in school are significant, and the risks seem to be relatively small compared to other things like pubs and nightclubs," she added.

Fórsa concern for staff with underlying health conditions

The trade union representing special needs assistants and school secretaries, Fórsa, has said it is concerned that workers with underlying health conditions could be at unnecessary high risk once schools start to reopen.

The union said it is concerned that standard occupational health advice, and new guidance issued by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DPER), give insufficient protections against Covid-19 to classroom-based staff with underlying health problems including lung and respiratory conditions, heart disease, and some cancers.

The union's head of education, Andy Pike, said workers had been told they must work in classrooms without any social distancing, despite clear evidence that they are at high risk if they contract the virus.

"We are seeking an alternative approach that is responsive to advice from GPs, rather than a blanket uniform approach which is insensitive to real health risks and fears," he added.

Fórsa said it has written to Minister for Education Norma Foley to say that staff in the schools sector are most at risk, but are getting the least protection.

The union has asked the minister to reconsider the policy to "afford a genuine clinical assessment to staff that takes account of their health status in accordance with published HSE advice".

It said that special needs assistants cannot practice social distancing and do their job because they work so closely with the students they personally care for.

Meanwhile, schools have reopened in Northern Ireland for the first time since March after months of disruption due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The World Health Organization says data to date suggests 80% of Covid-19 infections are mild or asymptomatic, 15% are severe infection, requiring oxygen and 5% are critical, requiring ventilation. 

Generally, you need to be 15 minutes or more in the vicinity of an infected person and within two metres of them, to be considered at-risk, or a close contact.

Additional reporting Fergal O'Brien, Emma O'Kelly