Schools are expected to reopen as planned on Thursday, following advice from public health officials.
It comes after health officials told the Government that there is no “public health rationale to delay the reopening of schools”.
Some teachers’ unions have called for the Government to rethink its approach to the return of schools, given the increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant.
The Department of Education, health officials, unions and school management bodies met on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the matter.
Public health officials advised that there is no public health rationale to delay the reopening of schools later this week
Department of Education spokesperson
The pandemic is also set to be discussed at a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday.
A spokesperson for the Department of Education described the meeting with the unions and health officials as “productive”.
“Education stakeholders were briefed by the minister and public health representatives on how the Covid-19 mitigation measures in place in schools have been reviewed by public health and will continue in place in the coming term,” the spokesperson said.
“Public health remains of the view that these mitigation measures are effective and appropriate.
“Furthermore, public health officials advised that there is no public health rationale to delay the reopening of schools later this week.
“Schools will operate in line with their Covid-19 response plans, which set out a range of mitigation measures for schools, including hand hygiene, mask-wearing, and social distancing.
However, given the very high and rising incidence of COVID-19 across all age groups in the community, it is inevitable that children will pick up this infection from household contacts in the days and weeks ahead.
— Dr Tony Holohan (@CMOIreland) January 4, 2022
“Schools have also been provided with guidance on maintaining good ventilation.”
The spokesperson said parents and students would receive guidance telling them “symptomatic students and household close contacts should not attend school”.
Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said the very high incidence of the disease in the community would lead to outbreaks in schools and childcare settings, but that they are “a lower risk environment for transmission”.
He urged people to reduce their contacts, particularly in indoor settings.
Dr Holohan said: “We saw a significant reduction in incidence of Covid-19 in primary school-going children through December.
“However, given the very high and rising incidence of Covid-19 across all age groups in the community, it is inevitable that children will pick up this infection from household contacts in the days and weeks ahead.
“We also know, as a result, that there will be cases and outbreaks in schools and childcare settings.
“The Irish and international experience of the pandemic continues to give us reason to believe that schools are a lower risk environment for the transmission of Covid-19 and that the majority of children who are infected experience a mild form of this disease.”
The INTO and other education unions met Minister Foley and officials from the Department of Education and Public Health this afternoon. Read our statement here:👇 https://t.co/5E97aYvZyq pic.twitter.com/J12Y8nygMk
— INTO (Irish National Teachers' Organisation) (@INTOnews) January 4, 2022
The INTO, the country’s largest teachers’ union, said it outlined at Tuesday’s meeting its view “that primary schools had been abandoned by public health in recent months, at a time of great unease and anxiety”.
It received commitments that designated public health staff would re-engage with the sector.
The Government has also agreed to provide teachers with medical grade face masks, increase the number of student teachers available for substitution duties, and that it will engage with the NIAC to ensure all teachers receive their booster jabs as soon as possible.
The TUI requested a further meeting with the department, which will take place on Wednesday, because Tuesday’s engagement “did not engage on the operational details” needed for reopening.
“In this regard, the union had earlier insisted that schools must have flexibility on how they reopen based on their particular circumstances,” a statement from the union said.
“The TUI also made clear that given the significant concern around the Omicron variant, the operation of schools must be kept under constant review.”
It was also confirmed that teachers will continue to follow the standard testing, tracing and isolating regime that applies to society generally.
Earlier, the Children’s Ombudsman called on the Government to keep schools open, saying closures cannot be the “default response” to surging Covid-19 cases.
We know the negative impact school closures have, not only on children’s learning, but on their social development
Dr Niall Muldoon, Children's Ombudsman
Dr Niall Muldoon has urged leaders to explore all options and maintain their commitment to keeping schools open, warning that those most vulnerable are “disproportionately affected”.
The secondary teachers’ union, the ASTI, had also called for “a delayed and staggered reopening” of schools.
Dr Muldoon said: “Closing schools and denying children access to in-person learning cannot be our default response.
“There is no doubt that the extremely high case numbers arising from the Omicron variant will be a challenge for everyone in the school community but, almost two years into the pandemic, we know the negative impact school closures have, not only on children’s learning, but on their social development.
“We also know that the most vulnerable children and those with special needs are disproportionately affected.”
Dr Muldoon backed the view of the Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, Dr Conor O’Mahony, who earlier this week said closures are not a simple trade-off between education and health.
“The negative impacts are wider and deeper than missing a few weeks of classes,” he added.
He said the Government should ensure it has exhausted “every safeguard and mitigation” before turning to school closures.
In a statement on Monday, the ASTI warned that reopening schools without introducing additional safety measures would be an “unacceptable risk”.
The union has cited concerns around safety of school communities, staff shortages due to Covid, inadequate ventilation and a lack of Hepa air filtration devices and risks to immuno-compromised individuals.
“We will be asking the minister to consider making antigen tests available for all parents and their children to be used prior to going to school as a supplement to the existing testing and tracing regime in second-level schools,” union president Eamon Dennehy said.
“The ASTI will also be calling for the speedy rollout of Hepa filtration units.
“It beggars belief that almost two years into this pandemic this basic facility is not in place where necessary.”
The ombudsman agreed that such measures should be taken, and said he had written to the Taoiseach before Christmas outlining his view that schools must remain open amid the threat of the Omicron variant.