Antigen tests will be made available in primary schools on or before 29 November, Minister for Education Norma Foley has confirmed.

Speaking on RTÉ's News at One, Ms Foley said the Health Service Executive will provide antigen tests to parents or guardians of all children in a class pod if one person in the pod tests positive for Covid-19.

Where two or more cases arise in a seven-day period outside of the original classroom pod, antigen testing will be provided to the full class, she said.

Parents and guardians will be asked to inform principals if a pupil tests positive for Covid-19 and the school will then inform the parents or guardians of the other children in the class pod, Ms Foley added.

She said the Health Service Executive plan to be fully operational with a call centre in place to organise the delivery of antigen tests to parents from 29 November.

The tests will be free of charge, the minister added.

Responding to the move, the Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) said it is important that such a scheme is properly resourced and kept under review.

"For eight months the government has procrastinated and failed to implement the recommendations of an expert group who proposed a pilot antigen study in primary schools.

"Infection levels are rising in our schools and the wider community at an alarming rate. Swift deployment, clear guidance and a full suite of supports for schools will be essential if this measure is to have the necessary impact on our schools.

"Once again, we call on the Government to launch an effective national public awareness campaign designed to stop those who are symptomatic from attending our schools."

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Speaking on RTÉ's Drivetime, INTO President Joe McKeown said that 8,600 primary school students were infected in the past two weeks, adding "we cannot overstate how grave the situation is" in schools.

Nineteen of those students are in hospital, he said, and a small number of them are in intensive care units.

"It is a really, really worrying situation and every day delay in getting antigen testing and proper contact tracing means that there'll be another 600 or more children of primary school age with Covid."

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Meanwhile, the head of the Expert Advisory Group on Rapid Testing said the use of antigen testing is an additional tool and not a substitution for other measures.

Speaking on the same programme, Professor Mary Horgan said work was commissioned to look at people's understanding of how the tests should be used and said the findings show a "fairly low level of understanding of how the tests operate".

A public information campaign is really important to ensure that people use the tests in the right way and understand what the results mean, she said.

"A negative result does not mean a green light to go off and do everything. A negative test result is an additional layer that allows us to understand that we're protecting people from and breaking that chain of transmission," she added.

Separately, the Labour Party's education spokesperson has warned that the school system is on the "brink of collapse".

Speaking during Leaders' Questions in the Dáil, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin said there was a huge amount of confusion among the school community and accused Government of a lack of leadership.

He also said that there was a significant shortage of substitute teachers and told Green Party leader Eamon Ryan that the rollout of antigen testing was too slow.

Mr Ryan said it is key that the education system remains open, and he believes it will.

Mr Ryan rejected calls from Mr Ó Ríordáin for teachers and SNAs to be prioritised in the vaccine booster roll-out.

He said he did not believe it would be appropriate to divert from the vaccine strategy and it could damage public support for the vaccine roll-out if preference was given to different sectors.

He said the Department of Education is trying to contact teachers who are out of work or retired and might be willing to come back to substitute and the department is also writing to colleges, to see if student teachers might be available to help "plug that gap".

Meath school closes classroom as no teacher available

A primary school in Co Meath is among the latest to close a classroom due to ongoing high absentee rates among teachers and a shortage of substitute cover.

Third and fourth class pupils at Scoil Eoin Báiste in Nobber were asked to remain at home today because there is no teacher available to take their class.

The two year groups share a class teacher at the small school.

Principal Anne-Marie McKenna told RTÉ News that despite trying everything - including appeals yesterday evening on social media - she could not find substitute cover for today for two teachers who are absent this week.

School staff absentee rates have soared due to Covid-19. They are set to increase even more after this week's tightening of restrictions around attendance at work for close contacts.

The school has four mainstream classrooms as well as two special classes for children with autism. Those two classes are operating as normal.

As well as being principal, Ms McKenna is also the school's special education teacher.

However, today she is teaching a mainstream class and so is not available to work with pupils across the school's four mainstream classrooms who have additional needs.

Ms McKenna said that since September those children have lost 20 days of teaching.

"They are the children who are really getting the raw deal all the time", she said.

"It's just so upsetting. I have never seen it so bad".

Referring to a special State programme, called CLASS, that is funding extra teaching resources to children with additional needs to help them to catch up after learning loss during the school closures, Ms McKenna said: "We have this new CLASS programme, but we have no teachers to cover it".

She said the decision to tell families to keep their children at home was a "heartbreaking" one to make.

"We are just exhausted. There is no break. You are spending your weekends and evenings looking for subs. I was even on Twitter last night".

Other schools across the country, including secondary schools, have also been forced to tell students to stay at home, because they cannot find substitute teachers to cover absences.

Second level schools say they are also finding it impossible in many instances to find qualified teachers to cover subjects.

Many schools have sent notes home to parents advising them of the problems they are facing.

One Dublin school secondary school told RTÉ News: "We have five teachers out at present and not one qualified sub. It is unjust and a disgrace."

Dublin primary school Shelleybanks ETNS advised parents earlier this week that it had been unable to find qualified teachers for seven absent staff.

"Many of these staff will be absent for the rest of this week and some next week also. Although we have tried all of the available routes to secure substitute teachers we have been unable to secure any qualified substitutes for these absences.

"We are currently using student teachers who are on placement in our school and our Special Education teachers to cover these absences. We are doing our very best to keep all classes open. However, timetables for our Special Education teachers have been impacted greatly and will continue to be," the school said.

Another Dublin school, The Harold School, said: "The problem is particularly acute in our area with the Substitute Supply Panel currently consisting of three teachers serving a cluster of approximately 25 schools (more than 300 teachers)".

It said the entire staff cohort, including Special Education Teachers, the principal and deputy principal, and also CLASS teachers, were "being utilised constantly in the most appropriate way possible to minimise disruption".