School managers, primary teachers and SNA trade unions are meeting Department of Education officials to discuss the relaxing of close contact rules in primary schools and early learning centres.

It comes as schools and centres have received guidance telling them that if they become aware of a case of Covid-19 in a child or adult who has recently attended their facility, they no longer have to contact the HSE.

The instruction is contained in advice issued to primary school principals and facility managers this morning.

The advice states that a child who was previously identified as a close contact of a case of Covid-19, other than a household close contact, and who does not have symptoms, will no longer be routinely recommended or required to restrict their movements and be tested.

It says schools should continue with close observation of children for symptoms which are consistent with Covid-19 and all infection prevention and control measures, including pods and other mitigation measures should remain in place.

Ongoing analysis of the epidemiological situation has informed the NPHET recommendation to evolve public health management of school settings from Monday next, according to Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan.

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"Both nationally and internationally, the evidence tells us that schools are a low risk setting for the transmission of Covid-19 among school-going children and, as such, now is the right time to evolve our contact tracing approach, while maintaining the infection prevention and control in place in educational settings," he said.

"I would urge parents to keep children who are unwell and who experience the common symptoms of COVID-19 home from school and to contact your GP if you have any concerns."

Meanwhile, school principals and other school staff have been reacting with mixed views to the changes.

While some are satisfied with them, others have told RTÉ News that they are premature and the rationale behind them difficult to understand.

There are some concerns that the changes will allow the virus to spread unchecked in classrooms.

However, other school workers say they are satisfied to follow the public health advice which has found that the risk of the virus to children is low, and that they are not significant transmitters.

Some schools have said that the changes will not lead to a great reduction in the number of children absent from school, because of the fact that children with a range of symptoms are being asked to stay at home.

Schools are reporting extremely high levels of absenteeism.

There is also some concern around how the new relaxed rules will apply to children with conditions such as autism.

The close contact rules continue to apply to children in special schools or attending special classes in mainstream schools. However, autism groups have pointed out that children with autism in these settings are no more medically vulnerable than other pupils.

Ausism group AsIAm has said that these students should not be treated any differently to their peers. The group has said it has received a large volume of messages overnight and is seeking an urgent meeting with the Department of Education to discuss the matter.

New advice issued

In the advice issued today, schools have been told that any child who was previously identified as a close contact of a case from outside of the house or special educational needs/respite care setting and is currently out restricting their movements, can return to schools, clubs etc from Monday.

Children identified as close contacts within a special educational need school, special class or respite care, should remain restricting their movements until five days of restricted movements are complete.

Schools have been told that the changes have been made because vaccines have proven to reduce the spread of Covid-19 and reduce the risk of severe disease and/or hospitalisation in communities.

It stresses public health teams will continue to liaise with special education needs schools or classes where cases of Covid-19 have been identified.

However, close contacts identified in these settings "will generally be requested only to restrict their movements for five days and be referred for one Covid-19 test".

HSE defends changes

Earlier, the HSE's National Lead for Testing and Tracing defended the changes, saying it is based on evidence and is not "a gamble".

Niamh O'Beirne said clinicians within the HSE have studied the data in "great depth" and they feel in the broader interest of children's physical and mental health it is important they remain in school.

HSE Clinical Lead on Child Health Dr Abigail Collins said it is right to constantly evaluate and consider what Covid restrictions are in place, particularly for young children for whom exclusions and restrictions are "so very, very harmful".

Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, she said Covid transmission in schools is much lower than in other settings - a phenomenon that is seen internationally - and children are not the drivers of any extra spread.

Dr Collins said the risk of transmission in a household setting is the highest, so it is appropriate that children who are household close contacts should restrict their movements, while medical vulnerability must be considered in special educational settings.

She said if a child has a runny nose, but is otherwise in good health and good form, then they can go to school.

However, she said, if a child has a runny nose along with other symptoms and seems a little off form, then they should be kept off school and their GP consulted.

INTO expresses concern

The Irish National Teachers' Organisation and some crèche operators have expressed concern about changes to close contact rules for children.

The INTO said it is shocked at the speed of the decision to allow unvaccinated children who are linked to a confirmed case in their class continue to attend school.

The union, along with some crèche operators, believe it is too soon to make this decision and have urged the Government to revisit the issue.

Otherwise, it warned, a high rate of infection could force schools to shut for longer at the October midterm.

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly has said recent data shows that schools are a low-risk environment for transmission of Covid.

According to the latest report from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, there were 90 school based outbreaks recorded in the week to last Saturday, resulting in 412 confirmed linked cases of Covid-19.

The proportion of primary school children who tested positive for Covid-19 in a school setting is more than double that found in schools prior to the summer break.

Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Roderic O'Gorman said that his department will issue guidance to the childcare sector on new close contact tracing protocols by tomorrow morning.

He said the changes are a recognition that the public health situation in Ireland is improving.