‘no longer necessary’ to keep large numbers of children out of school, says NI CMO

Keeping large numbers of children out of school to halt the spread of coronavirus is “no longer” necessary, Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer (CMO) has said.

Friday, 10th September 2021, 4:15 pm

Professor Sir Michael McBride, in a letter to parents and schools, has insisted schools are “safe places for children and staff” as he outlined how authorities are taking a “more targeted approach” to contact tracing and self-isolation requirements for children.

The CMO’s comments follow warnings from teaching unionis and others that schools have been faced with a “tsunami” of absences due to contact tracing since the beginning of the new school year.

Earlier this week, it was announced that the Public Health Agency would now take on the task of identifying pupils required to self isolate following contact with a confirmed coronavirus infection.

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That responsibility had fallen on school staff, who had adopted differing approaches to the latest government guidance on self-isolation that often resulted in large numbers of pupils missing two weeks of schooling at a time.

In his letter, Professor McBride said: “A combination of school closures and COVID related absences have resulted in our children missing out on a significant amount of school during the last two academic years. While this was not something any of us would have wished for, at earlier stages of the pandemic the benefits to society of reducing the growth in the epidemic made this necessary. This is no longer the case.”
He continued: “The public health grounds for keeping and supporting children at school are extremely strong. We have evidence from recently published reports from Scotland and England that the vast majority of those identified as school close contacts and sent home to isolate during the last academic year did not go on to develop COVID.”

On the new approach to contact tracing, he said: “We know how important school is for children and want to ensure children only miss out when necessary. As highlighted above, at earlier stages in the pandemic many children were missing school. However, this is no longer a proportionate approach.”

He added: “The more targeted approach to identification of close contacts in school will identify the children who have had the closest contact and therefore the highest risk of being positive. It will also free up teachers and principals so that they can spend more of their time and efforts getting back to doing what they do best – teaching and inspiring our children and young people.”