‘Schools to receive new Covid contact tracing guidance this week’

Updated guidance for dealing with Covid cases in Northern Ireland’s schools should be issued this week, a Stormont committee has been told.

Wednesday, 8th September 2021, 3:53 pm
Year 8 students at Oakgrove Integrated College being briefed on the new up-to-date regulations regarding moving around the school.

James Hutchinson, an official at the Department of Education, told MLAs that work is continuing to create a “much tighter system” for identifying close contacts so that fewer pupils will have to undergo PCR testing.Concern has grown due to the number of children who are currently off school because they have been identified as a close contact with a positive case, with unions warning of a “tsunami” of absences.

The current policy was heavily criticised during a hearing of the Education Committee, with one MLA stating that schools have been “made unsafe” by the current regulations.

DUP member Diane Dodds told the committee: “I am struck by the fact that we are discussing guidance that was actually agreed by the whole Executive.”

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She then asked Mr Hutchinson what could be done to reduce the burden on teachers.

Mr Hutchinson said: “We are now in a situation where we have had a series of social relaxations and that has resulted in an increase in community transmission.

“Where we are seeing the problem is that that is manifesting itself in a pressure on school leaders who are trying to do their best to work with the PHA (Public Health Agency) to identify close contacts.

“We accept that has been a real pressure on staff.

“Our ambition would be to have a much tighter system of identification so that only those who absolutely need to self-isolate are told to do so.

“We can point to evidence from colleagues in Scotland which would suggest that only 5% of close contacts of a pupil in a school ever go on to become infected, so really we are trying to find the means to relieve the burdens on schools.”

Mrs Dodds responded: “Will we know before the start of the new school week that there will be revised guidance?”

Mr Hutchinson said: “We would very much hope that, before the end of this week, and hopefully tomorrow, we will have something concrete to put out there.

“Where we are seeing the problem is that that is manifesting itself in a pressure on school leaders who are trying to do their best to work with the PHA (Public Health Agency) to identify close contacts.

“We accept that has been a real pressure on staff.

“Our ambition would be to have a much tighter system of identification so that only those who absolutely need to self-isolate are told to do so.”

Current guidance states that a pupil identified as a close contact must stay away from school and undergo a PCR test on the second day. If negative, they can then return to school but must undertake another PCR test on the eighth day after contact.

School staff are also responsible for tracing asymptomatic close contacts, which teachers have warned has created an unfair burden on them.

SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan said there seems to be “a cultural issue” in the department which has led to “poor planning and strategy” around Covid.

“Everything that this department has been doing is entirely reactionary, dependent on what happens and dependent on whatever day of the week it is,” he said, “which is exactly why we’re in the situation we are in today where children en masse are having to be isolated from schools and teachers and school leaders are furious about that reality.

“The reality is that the department is failing children and teachers and principals miserably.”

Mr Hutchinson said: “There will be disruptions which are sporadic in nature, but hopefully, if the infection rate settles down and we can narrow down close contact arrangements, we will see many many fewer pupils being asked to self-isolate and for shorter periods.”

Mr McCrossan replied: “Schools are safe places and they are safe because of the hard work of our teachers and our principals and the mitigations they have put in place.

“But schools are being made unsafe continually by the failures of this department and the feet-trailing that goes on, and the poor reactions to the situation our schools are facing during Covid-19. ”

Members agreed to a suggestion from chairman Chris Lyttle that the committee should request an urgent joint meeting with the Health Committee to hear evidence from the health and education ministers