John Weir, principal of St Mary’s Parish Bryanstown Primary School in Drogheda, Co. Louth, reads the school’s logbook. He can’t remember a time when so many children and employees were out of school.
“We’ve seen a massive spike in Covid cases lately,” he says. “In some classes, there was almost 50 percent attendance. . . There are cases of Covid, preventive absences, children awaiting tests, other illnesses. For others, we just don’t know until mom or dad tells us.
Overall, the school averaged an overall absenteeism rate of around 15% in November, well above normal.
“We are doing everything to minimize the spread within the school with the prevention measures, but the hardest part is to keep it out of the school. . . Many parents do not know when they can and cannot send their children to school. The guide is constantly updated.
The school, he says, has managed to limit transmission within the pods to a few cases by acting quickly when positive cases have been identified, but it looks like a constant battle. The government’s mantra that “schools are safe” does not wash away with it.
“These children are the only unvaccinated group that remains in society. The children are in rooms with 28 others for six or seven hours a day. You are dealing with unmasked children. It is therefore very difficult to see that they are “safe”.
The latest figures released this week show children of primary school age now have the highest incidence of Covid-19 of any age group, with some 10,000 positive cases in the fifteen last few weeks.
A report from the Health Protection Surveillance Center (HPSC) notes that the infection rate among children of primary school age has been increasing since mid-October.
Many schools are struggling to keep classes open due to staff shortages linked to high rates of work stoppages or teachers forced into self-isolation due to the virus. It is estimated that tens of thousands of primary school children nationwide are also out of school.
The magnitude of the infection rate among young people has raised urgent questions about the actual safety of primary schools.
Are risk mitigation measures such as hand washing, opening windows and – potentially – face masks for those over 9 years old enough to fight the spread of the virus?
In elementary school staff rooms this week, rumors once again revolved around circuit breakers and potential school closures.
The remarks by Dr Ronan Glynn – the deputy chief medical officer of the state – that “schools are not as safe now as they used to be” seemed to reinforce the long-standing concerns of many teachers.
The country’s largest primary teachers ‘union, the Irish National Teachers’ Organization (INTO), warned earlier this week that the system was “creaking at the seams” and teachers had been “abandoned”.
However, public health experts are convinced that schools remain a low risk of disease transmission.
They informed the government that most infections in children come from parents, family contacts and the community, rather than schools.
The latest HPSC report, for example, indicates that the increase in the virus in preschool and elementary-aged children has been broadly consistent with increases in other age groups since mid-October.
“The risk of transmission from asymptomatic cases not detected in schools remains low,” he says.
Dr Abigail Collins, consultant in public health medicine and HSE’s clinical manager for child health, agrees with this. When asked if schools are “safe,” she said public health experts tend to avoid such terms.
“We take care of the risk assessment. With the right measures in place – like keeping people with symptoms away from school and putting infection controls in place – schools are low risk environments for the spread of Covid-19, ”said Dr Collins.
If schools really pose such a low risk, why have Covid-19 rates among 5 to 12 year olds tripled in the past two months?
Dr Collins points out a number of factors at play. If there is a high incidence of cases in the wider society, children will also contract it through domestic or community transmission, she says.
Children are also the only unvaccinated group remaining in the population. Plus, she says, children tend to be tested more because parents are highly motivated to do so.
“Even now, the proportion of children who test positive in elementary school is pretty stable. The numbers are increasing for all age groups. . . Are schools or classrooms parameters of amplification? It is not what we see or experience.
She highlights trends in coronavirus data since schools reopened in September to illustrate this point.
Positive cases in children increased in early September when schools reopened, but stabilized and declined a few weeks later.
This increase, she says, was likely the result of a major spike in testing that detected asymptomatic cases that would not have been detected otherwise.
Dr Collins says cases didn’t start to increase significantly among elementary school children until October, when the company began to fully reopen.
“You can see from the graphs that the adult cases have increased, followed by the children a little later. It is not a surprise. Children are part of the community. If there are high numbers in the community, there will be high numbers among the children.
However, many principals and teachers are skeptical of the official coronavirus figures and persistently suspect that school cases are not being properly recorded.
John Boyle of INTO says the removal of routine testing and tracing from schools in late September masked the escalating number of positive cases among elementary school students and staff.
“It simply cannot be a coincidence that the number of children aged 5 to 12 who contract the virus has tripled since crucial public health supports were withdrawn from the primary sector less than two months ago, dropping out. teachers and principals to protect themselves and their unmasked and unvaccinated students from the impact of the strongest wave of infection in their schools since the start of the pandemic, ”Boyle said.
Some principals and teachers also cite official HPSC figures on outbreaks in schools to support their case: Under the old test and tracing regime, up to 90 outbreaks were detected in a single week in September.
Yet last week, without systematic contact tracing in schools, only 24 outbreaks were detected.
Dr Collins admits that public health authorities do not have the same level of surveillance or visibility of outbreaks as under the old test and trace regime.
However, she says that in epidemics where there is a public health response, the majority only involve a handful of cases.
Where there are high-profile examples of major outbreaks in schools, she says, they tend to have their origin in out-of-school events that a group of children or families attended, such as a party or event.
“Society has opened up. . . It’s nobody’s fault, but it’s what drives the transmission, ”she said.
The other major risk is that an HIV-positive child or staff member will remain in school, undetected, for a significant period of time.
Many principals and teachers say they want contact tracing back to the primary level, which they say will make schools safer by being able to track down the virus. They are convinced that the system was relaxed too early because the system could not cope with the volume of contact tracing required.
Dr Collins, however, argues that the system unfairly led to the exclusion of thousands of close contacts of positive cases in schools. The low transmission rates meant the vast majority – around 98% – tested negative.
She says authorities are “acutely aware of the impact that periods of absence from school have on the educational, social and emotional well-being of children.”
Either way, she says the usefulness of contact tracing when there are a large number of cases in the community is “blunted” and public health messages become more important.
“So public health messages such as making sure any child with symptoms of Covid-19 – including a new cough, shortness of breath, high temperature, sore throat – is self-isolating. and pass a PCR test are so important. This is by far the most important thing to do at the moment. “
As for the rumors about the closing of schools, these are just that.
“There are very clear international recommendations that schools should be the last places to close and the first to reopen. I think a lot of things would have to be shut down first before it’s ever considered, ”she said.
Matt Melvin, principal of St Etchen National School in Kinnegad, County Westmeath, is focusing on the next few weeks until Christmas. It’s been everyone’s business on deck lately,
“I’ve been a teacher, SNA, bus escort, housekeeper this week – and principal,” he says with a smile.
His school is grappling with staff shortages and cases of Covid, but he is optimistic about the future.
“We’ve had cases at school recently – but schools are just a reflection of society. This is an issue over which society at large needs to have a grip, ”he said.
In St Etchen, he says, risk mitigation measures seem to be working: keeping windows open, limiting students to capsules, and using carbon dioxide monitors.
“We don’t see any transmission within the school, but we have had cases. Children are very docile. They wash their hands, they stay in their pods and they will wear face masks if necessary, ”he says.
“They watch the carbon dioxide monitors and if they turn orange, we go outside for 10 minutes. . . As far as I’m concerned, the school is calm, secure and safe. The kids through it have been great. If the rest of the company were half as compliant, we would be in a much better position.