Principals call for urgent review of latest two-day pupil isolation guidance - and press for contact tracing staff

A number of principals are calling for an urgent review of the Executive approach to managing Covid-19 policies in schools across Northern Ireland.

Monday, 6th September 2021, 4:59 pm
Updated Monday, 6th September 2021, 6:38 pm

The calls come after Larne High School had over half its pupils yesterday at home self isolating - over 400 children - and after Braniel Primary School in east Belfast rejected new guidance that only requires pupils to self isolate for two days in favour of the previous policy of ten days.

Several principals yesterday also called for urgent support with the administration of contact tracing for children and departmental guidance on future contingency plans. They also expressed support for the vaccination of children over twelve - if medical advice supports the move.

Northern Ireland currently has the highest Covid infection rate of any part of the UK and the return to school this week has caused significant strains on the sector.

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Education Minister Michelle McIlveen marked the start of the new term by meeting some new Primary One pupils at Dundonald Primary School. Photo: Matt Mackey / Press Eye

Education Minister Michelle McIlveen has previously announced a £5.5m boost to schools to address testing and contact tracing.

The latest guidance from the Department of Health (DOH) is that pupils who come into contact with an infected person can come back to school as soon as they have a negative PCR test - which takes around two days.

However Braniel Primary School principal Diane Dawson has told parents of her pupils she does not have confidence in the new policy and is sticking to the previous ten day period.

Ms Dawson said her school believed in the “excellent practise” from last year of having a work pack covering ten days ready to send home to isolating children.

Year 8 students at Oakgrove Integrated College being briefed on the new up-to-date regulations regarding moving around the school on Tuesday morning.

“We will continue to send that pack home for you to work with your child or whomever your child can work with,” she said in a video recorded for parental information and reported by Good Morning Ulster.

She added: “Yes I know children are less likely to catch Covid or to have symptoms but we know of children already suffering from long term covid.

“I don’t feel we can do that in Braniel. I have no faith or trust in the current guidance.

“They have made it very clear that the guidance is up to me to decide what I do in my school and it is guidance only.”

Head of Larne High School, Stephen Reid, said he had over 400 pupils at home yesterday, having ended up asking his entire Year Ten not to come in on Monday.

“What I would like to see are some clear contingency plans coming from the Department of Education,” he told Good Morning Ulster. He also wants to know if high schools will be inspected in future in relation to such issues.

Graeme Gault, President of National Association of Head Teachers, said the burden of contact tracing has become “absolutely immense” for some schools.

He added: “Really it is our view that the contact tracing requirement that is on principals is simply not sustainable.”

In the Republic of Ireland, the government believes a reduced infection rate in schools may be due to their policy of issuing vaccinations to children aged 12 to 15.

Both Mr Reid and Mr Gault said they would support vaccination of children from age 12 up, if the scientific advice will support it.

But Mr Gault called for an urgent review of the current guidance on isolation for pupils, who can now return to school after only two days, with a negative PCR test.

The guidance “doesn’t seem to be appropriate for schools in terms of the isolation, where schools have been advising parents to isolate for longer [ten days],” he said.

He also called for extra staff to be deployed into schools who can manage contact tracing and allow principals to take care of their core business - child protection, safeguarding, learning and teaching.

A spokesman for the Department of Education responded that the NI Executive’s policy on self-isolation was agreed on August 12 and updated guidance was issued to schools on August 18.

“The guidance was developed in close partnership with the Department of Health to ensure that the public health position was taken into account and in consultation with school leaders, key partners and Trade Union representatives,” he said.

“The revised guidance builds on the important experiences gained by our school leaders and staff throughout the pandemic.

“The Department would encourage schools to follow the guidance and that young people should follow the public health advice regarding self-isolation.

“The Department and the Department of Health will keep the guidance under review with support from colleagues in the EA (Education Authority) and PHA (Public Health Agency), who will continue to engage with schools where any issues arise.”

Nine further deaths of patients who had tested positive for Covid-19 have been reported in Northern Ireland today.

The Department of Health said there had also been 1,764 new confirmed cases in the last 24-hour reporting period.

On Monday morning, there were 407 Covid-19 inpatients in hospital, 46 of whom were in intensive care.

Meanwhile, a UK expert advising on jabs has said there is no right or wrong answer when it comes to the “finely balanced” decision on vaccinating healthy 12 to 15-year-olds against coronavirus.

The UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI)’s deputy chairman acknowledged there could be a level of discomfort for parents if the Government says yes to offering vaccines to this age group, after the committee decided against recommending a mass rollout on health grounds alone.

Professor Anthony Harnden said: “It is up to the parents and teenagers to decide whether they go ahead or not. There isn’t a right or wrong answer to this.”

On Friday, the committee said that while the health benefits from vaccination are “marginally greater than the potential known harms”, the benefit is considered too small to support universal vaccination, and noted the low risk Covid-19 presents to younger teenagers.

But Professor Chris Whitty and the three other chief medical officers in the UK are now reviewing the wider benefits of vaccinating the age group, such as minimising school absences, and are expected to present their findings within days. The Government is awaiting their advice before making a final decision on the issue, but ministers have indicated they are keen to authorise a wider rollout.

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