“Schools are safe”: This mantra was reiterated by government ministers last year.
No one is saying now.
In the face of the latest wave of COVID-19, there is apprehension from everyone – ministers, public health officials, teachers and parents – about how things will turn out in the days and weeks ahead.
Public health officials on Thursday gave the green light to reopen schools on the grounds that there was “no public health justification” in keeping them closed.
Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan said the latest evidence is that schools are “low-risk environments for transmission of the virus” and that most children who are infected experience a mild form of the illness.
However, I have acknowledged that it was “inevitable” that children would pick up the infection from household contacts in the coming days and weeks, leading to more cases and outbreaks in schools.
It was not surprising, then, that so many schools reported record levels of student absenteeism this week.
While many were out of school because they were positive cases or close contacts, principals say many families are taking a “wait and see” approach.
An elementary school principal said, “The reality is that if the Omicron strain is indeed transmitted four or five times more, then all the air filters in the world, open windows and hand-washing will not prevent it from spreading in the school.” “
So, what does the latest data tell us?
Even before the introduction of Omicron, outbreaks in schools were not rare. Data from the Health Protection Monitoring Center (HPSC) released this week showed there were more outbreaks in schools – 514 – in the second half of last year than in any other public setting. This, of course, was at a time when less permeable versions were circulating.
However, many headmasters and teachers are skeptical about the official coronavirus figures.
The removal of routine testing and tracing from primary schools at the end of September, they say, resulted in not many outbreaks being recorded.
There is clear evidence: 90 outbreaks a week were being detected during September under the old test-and-tracing regime.
Nevertheless, in the weeks that followed – without regular contact tracing in schools – the number of school outbreaks was found to decrease, even as COVID cases in the community began to rise.
HSE officials admit they did not have the same level of surveillance or outbreak visibility as they did under the old test-and-tracing regime.
But in the cases where he has responded to outbreaks, he says, the majority involved only a few cases.
If the number of school-recorded outbreaks is not reliable, a better indicator is the age-related breakdown of confirmed positive cases.
The latest information we have about schools pertains to the weeks before the Christmas holiday, when the Omicron edition was gaining a foothold in the community.
The HPSC data shows that the incidence of COVID-19 among primary school-aged children is almost double the average for all age groups from mid to late November.
It began to drop significantly in December when face masks were introduced, falling below the national average when schools broke down for Christmas.
The proportion of cases among second level students – where face masks are mandatory and many are vaccinated – has also been relatively low.
Given that the Omicron variant is rampant in the community, we most expect a boom in school affairs to be inevitable.
Modeling by public health officials suggests cases will peak in mid to late January, before falling sharply.
Public health officials say the biggest factors in limiting the spread of COVID-19 at school are keeping symptomatic children or close contacts out of the classroom and following general risk-mitigation measures.
Meanwhile, schools are preparing themselves for a bumpy ride in the coming weeks.
While most managed to keep classes open this week, they worry about how many teaching staff will be available and how sustainable it will be to keep schools open in the event of a widespread outbreak.