The trade union representing primary school teachers has called for an immediate review of measures to address what it says are soaring transmission levels in the sector following the removal of public health supports in late September.

The Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) has said the cessation since then of public health assessments and the publication of weekly reports detailing infection levels "has concealed the escalation of positive case numbers among pupils and staff".

Appearing to blame the removal of contact tracing for the subsequent rise in cases among primary age children, the union's General Secretary John Boyle said: "It simply cannot be a coincidence that the number of five to 12-year-old children contracting the virus has trebled since crucial public health supports were removed."

Mr Boyle said teachers and principals had 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".

The union has published the results of an online survey in which 27% of primary school principals participated last week.

Because school principals could choose themselves whether or not to respond, the findings cannot be taken as indicative of the overall picture regarding Covid levels and staff absence levels across the sector.

However, the survey findings do reflect the great difficulty that schools are facing in finding substitute cover for absent teachers.

It found that for substitutable teacher absence that occurred during the first two weeks of this month, across the 877 schools that participated, no replacement could be found for almost one third (31.4%) of those absences.

The 877 schools reported a total of almost 12,000 days where teacher absence gave rise to a need for substitute cover during this two-week period.

Fewer than half of these absences (48%) were covered by a qualified primary school teacher, with the remainder being filled by non-primary school teachers or by people who are not registered as teachers.

Schools in all 26 counties responded.

During the same two-week period these schools said a total of 3,726 pupils (1.6%) had tested positive for Covid.

This is around half the number of cases recorded nationally for this age group during the same period by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC).

Asked about the INTO's call for the reintroduction of measures to address transmission levels, the Taoiseach said the Government will continue to follow the public health advice and balance that with the importance of keeping children in school.

On the roll out of the vaccine for five to 12 year olds, Micheál Martin said they are waiting on the directive of the European Medicines Agency, which is due in the next fortnight, but even if it is given the green light, he said he did not see it being rolled out to this cohort by Christmas.

Removal of contact tracing

In a move strongly criticised by schools and by the INTO at the time, on 27 September the HSE abandoned routine contact tracing for asymptomatic close contacts in primary schools.

HPSC data shows that in the weeks prior to this move the infection rate in five to 12-year-olds was decreasing. However, in early October it began to increase and it has continued to increase ever since.

While 1,356 cases were recorded among five to 12-year-olds for the last week in September, data for the latest week this month shows 4,211 cases recorded in this age group.

The HPSC has said "these increases are consistent with increases across other age groups during the same time period and the proportion of cases aged 0-4 years and 5-12 years has continued to remain relatively stable over recent weeks, despite increases in incidence rates".

However, the INTO has reiterated a claim it made at the end of September, that the move to cease contact tracing in primary schools was premature, and today it has linked the rising incidence to that decision.

Mr Boyle said that the recent "soaring transmission levels were an indictment of the premature removal of testing and contact tracing from primary schools, and of the frustrating failure to move quickly to deploy antigen testing".

"The results of the survey indicate that a significant number of school staff (605 staff members in 877 schools that responded to the survey) contracted Covid-19 in recent weeks. This contrasts starkly with the extremely low level of infection among adults in schools that had been reported in official data on schools' mass testing prior to 27 September and challenges the narrative that Irish primary schools are low risk environments."

The union has called on the Government to take seriously a recent statement from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control which found that "sharing a classroom can be considered a high-risk exposure".

The union has called for the fast-tracking of the booster vaccine programme and the provision of vaccines for children aged under 12 to support the primary education system in the coming months.

It also wants another review by HIQA of the minimum age for the wearing of face masks, and that "the union representing workers who teach the largest cohort of unvaccinated and un-masked individuals in over-crowded and often poorly ventilated settings be consulted".

The union is also seeking more air quality monitors and air filtration systems in primary and special schools.

"From now until Christmas," the union says, "clear and consistent public health messaging, scaled-up public health mitigation measures with a renewed emphasis on improving air quality, increasing social distancing, limiting congregation within and near school facilities and a willingness to respond quickly are essential if we want to ensure that schools can operate safely for the next month".

Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, Mr Boyle said the INTO wants to see the return of contact tracing in schools.

He said there are 9,000 primary school children off with Covid, but there are 14,000 others who could be going to school with symptoms, adding that principals feel abandoned and without the assistance of public health authorities.

Meanwhile, the Irish Primary Principals Network has echoed calls for contact tracing and risk assessments to be re-introduced in primary schools as a matter of urgency.

IPPN President Brian O'Doherty said that the reality was now "fundamentally different" as a result of escalating Covid-19 infections and required a different approach from public health.

He said the decision to halt the system to identify close contacts and carry out risk assessments was premature and said it is important to "de-bunk the myth that schools are miraculously safe places".

Speaking on RTÉ's Today with Claire Byrne, Mr O'Doherty said schools want to work to limit the possibility of onward transmission in the school settings and the control measures in place are effective but not foolproof.

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