The coronavirus infection rate in schools is running at about a third of the rate in the community, showing that schools are safer from the virus, health officials have told Government.
Figures presented to Government over the weekend show there has been an overall positive rate of 2.5 per cent of Covid-19 cases in creches and schools compared with 7.3 per cent overall across testing in the wider community.
The HSE data shows that when broken down further, in primary and secondary schools, the positive rate on mass testing falls to 1.8-1.9 per cent.
The figures come amid calls from teacher unions for clarity on what additional controls would be introduced in schools if the Government were to move to Level 4 or 5 under the Living with Covid plan.
David Geary, assistant general secretary of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO), said the Government roadmap referred to precautionary measures being introduced with Level 4 restrictions and a need to take stock with Level 5 but it was not clear what this might mean.
“We would also like to see the latest public health evidence on Covid-19 and schools,” he said.
Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) general secretary Michael Gillespie said his members sought “clarity, consistency and certainty” from Government on “the additional protective measures available under levels 4 and 5”. These were “never clarified”, he said.
The Government said on Saturday after meetings with officials that Ministers were briefed that “children were safer in schools, transmission rates are low and that the continued opening of schools is very important to the development and wellbeing of children and young people”.
The figures are based on mass testing of close contacts among students and teachers where Covid-19 cases have been detected since schools reopened up to Friday morning.
The number of swabs taken in mass testing in schools rose to 2,500 last week from 1,500 the week before, reflecting the higher level of transmission in the community but the positive rate from mass testing in schools has remained consistent since they reopened.
One health official said the figures showed children do not spread the virus to other children in classes to any great extent, demonstrating the efficacy of protective measures in a controlled environment such as a school and the fact children were not primary sources of transmission.
As part of testing in schools, the HSE tested 10,453 people as a result of 437 cases identified in creches and schools. It detected 258 cases, representing a positive rate of 2.5 per cent.
Within these figures, out of 115 Covid-19 “index” cases identified in secondary schools, 2,716 tests were carried out and a further 49 cases detected, giving a positive rate of 1.8 per cent.
Some 211 Covid-19 case in primary schools led to the testing of 5,317 schoolchildren and teachers, resulting in 102 additional cases being detected, a positive rate of 1.9 per cent.
In creches and other childcare settings, the discovery of 92 Covid-19 cases led to tests on 1,865 infants and childcare workers and 97 further cases being detected, a positive rate of 5.2 per cent.
Out of these additional cases, 23 were adults and 74 were children.
In special education facilities, some 19 coronavirus cases led to a further 555 people being mass-tested, resulting in 10 new cases being detected, a positive rate of 1.8 per cent.
The latest Health Protection Surveillance Centres figures showed there were 25 Covid-19 outbreaks detected in schools during the week ending October 10th.
This brought to 73 the number of outbreaks in schools, with 61 outbreaks still open. An outbreak remains open until 28 days have passed without a new case emerging.
Minister of State at the Department of Higher Education Niall Collins said on Sunday the Government was “very clear” that “our schools are not a problem – that’s the feedback and the advice from the public health experts. So for the foreseeable future there are no changes to our primary and our secondary school regime.”
Stressing the value of keeping schools open, the Ombudsman for Children Dr Niall Muldoon tweeted on Sunday: “I urge Cabinet to remain true to their policy of keeping all schools open for the sake of the social, emotional and educational needs of the children of Ireland.”
For the TUI, Mr Geary said “teachers want the schools open and will obey the public health advice” but were uncertain about the higher level restrictions.
“We are concerned at Level 5 and would need to know the rationale behind introducing it. That is not forthcoming,” he said.
Both the TUI and INTO said they believed contact tracing involving schools could be better handled. Mr Geary said that in some primary schools, “parents contacted teachers about instances of contact tracing involving the school before those doing the tracing, though this is improving”.
Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland general secretary Kieran Christie said on Saturday there was “fear and trepidation among teachers and the students this week about the prospect of society moving into Level 5 and schools remaining open”.