Over 900,000 children have returned to classrooms across Ireland but education in the time of a pandemic is fraught with difficulties.

Already, several schools have had to close or send pupils home due to Covid-19.

Meanwhile the Irish Medical Organisation has reported a surge in the number of children attending GPs for assessment for possible Covid-19.

It's a confusing time for parents who value the importance of education but simultaneously worry about deciding when to keep their children away from the classroom.

Here's what you need to know ...    

When should I keep my child home from school?

Children should not attend school if they have symptoms of Covid-19 which include:

  • A fever (high temperature - 38C or above)
  • A cough (this can be any kind of cough, not just dry)
  • Shortness of breath or breathing difficulties
  • Loss or change to sense of smell or taste

It can take up to 14 days for symptoms to show. They can be similar to symptoms of cold and flu. Coronavirus symptoms span a wide range from mild to severe.

How can I tell the difference between coronavirus and other common ailments such as a cold, flu or hay fever?

A cold will rarely bring on a fever or a headache and it does not cause shortness of breath, vomiting or diarrhoea. Sneezing indicates your child has a cold.

Coronavirus and flu share some common symptoms, including fever, fatigue, aches and pains, sore throat and cough. Your GP is likely to recommend a Covid-19 test if you present with these symptoms.

Hay fever does not cause a high temperature. The HSE has a checklist that can help parents compare symptoms further, you will find it here.

Can I send my child to school with a runny nose?

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

Speaking at a recent NPHET briefing, Dr 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.

Children should stay at home until 48 hours after the symptoms settle. Waiting to see "how they go" during the day is no longer okay, she said.

What if my child is a close contact of someone who has coronavirus?

Public health teams and schools will let parents know if their child has been identified as a close contact of a possible or confirmed case of the disease.

If this happens, you must phone your GP to arrange a Covid-19 test and restrict their movements for 14 days, even if they feel well.

My child needs to have a Covid-19 test, what can we expect?

They may find going to a test centre a strange experience and feel scared when they see people in protective clothing.

The HSE has produced some great comics which will help reassure any children who need to get tested. You can find them here.

Can my child return to school if they test negative for the virus?

Your child can return to normal activities if they are 48 hours without symptoms and are given a negative test result or receive another diagnosis that is not coronavirus.

Do all children and parents in a family have to stay home if one has a temperature?

The Department of Education says that children, teachers and parents should not go to school if they or any members of their household are unwell with symptoms consistent with Covid-19.

If a family member has any common symptoms of Covid-19 (including a temperature), they should self-isolate and phone the GP immediately.

Tell me more about self-isolation and when it is necessary?

Self-isolation means staying indoors and completely avoiding contact with other people. This includes other people in your household, as much as possible.

An adult or child should self-isolate for 14 days if they test positive for Covid-19. They should also self-isolate if displaying symptoms and awaiting the results of a test or assessment from a GP.

What can I do to help my child stay healthy?

Limiting the transmission of the virus in the community is the best way to keep it out of schools, according to experts including Professor Philip Nolan from the National Public Health Emergency Team.

As well as following public health guidelines such as washing your hands regularly, practising physical distancing and wearing face coverings in busy indoor settings, you should avoid congregating in groups outside schools.

The HSE advises parents to travel to school by walking or cycling where possible. Do not share a car with people outside of your family group. Children using public transport should try and keep two metres apart from others and, if aged over 13, wear a face covering.

The virus that causes Covid-19 survives for longer on hard surfaces like lunchboxes and water bottles so these should be cleaned daily using regular household cleaning products.

Encourage your child to stay within their class "bubble" or "pod" during school breaks. Teachers cannot have eyes on every pupil so it's good to remind them of the rules as you drop them off in the morning.

School uniforms or clothes should be laundered regularly at 60C but there is no need for daily washing unless they are visibly dirty or soiled.

Covid-19 is affecting my child's mental health, what can I do?

Reassure them that schools are fully focused on keeping pupils safe and well. Teachers have received wellbeing toolkits from the Department of Education with guidelines on how to create a sense of calm and hope in the classroom.

They will use games and creative activities to help young people reconnect with existing friendships and establish new friendships.

Key messages in the classroom include
- school is a safe and fun place to be
- teachers are there to help you
- we are all in this together
- we can feel hopeful about the future.

Parents can help children deal with their emotions in several ways.

This includes showing them to how to recognise early physiological signs of intense feelings (eg: heart racing) and teaching them to rate their emotions on a scale of intensity (eg: from "ready to explode" to "feeling OK") to help them develop more self-control.

Remember, if you have any concerns at all that a member of your family is displaying symptoms of Covid-19, call your GP immediately to book a test.