All change for schools

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ADAPTING Catriona Canney (Vice Principal) and Dymphna Culhane (Principal) pictured at St Joseph’s Primary School, Ballinrobe when the school reopened after lockdown in September 2020. Pic: Michael McLaughlin

Antigen testing and mask wearing becomes a reality for national school children


Edwin McGreal

Recent days have seen considerable changes in public health guidelines for schools in the ongoing battle with Covid-19.
An antigen testing scheme has been rolled out for cases where a child in a school tests positive while the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) has recommended the wearing of masks for primary school children from third class upwards.
Last week’s front page story in The Mayo News saw a principal of a school in this county which saw a Covid-19 outbreak call for greater public health measures to be rolled out, particularly the return of contact tracing.
Yesterday (Monday) saw the roll-out of an antigen testing regime for schools.
Where schools are made aware of a confirmed case in a pod, the parents of children in that pod will be advised by the school to engage with antigen testing, using the HSE freephone number.
A staff member who has been working closely with a pod within which there has been a confirmed case will also be able to order antigen tests.
If children from two separate pods in one classroom test positive within seven days, the parents of every pupil in the class will be informed by the school that their children should engage with antigen testing.
All staff members working in that classroom will also be advised to engage with antigen testing.  
Those who are engaging in antigen testing will not have to restrict their movements unless they develop symptoms or test positive, in which case they should book a PCR test. Anyone with symptoms should book a PCR test and not avail of antigen testing, says the Department of Education.
Antigen tests will be delivered to the homes of those requesting them.
“I believe that the antigen measures will help,” George Moran, Principal of Breaffy NS, outside Castlebar, told The Mayo News.
He said the school has had, on average, five cases a week this school year while they had 13 staff off with ‘Covid caution’ at one stage. Nine children were off with Covid last week, he added.
Their newly opened autism unit had to close after a positive case, in line with recommendations, but none of the mainstream classes have closed to date.
“Nobody has been very sick with it thankfully,” he said. “It has been more constant in recent weeks. September was extremely busy then October was quiet and it has been very busy in November.
“We’ve had big drops in attendance. For instance last Wednesday, we had 70 missing. It was a mixture of a small number of Covid cases, flu cases and precaution.
“We stick to HSE protocols but parents have went above and beyond the guidelines around contact tracing etc, to get tests if they were unsure in order to keep everyone safe.
“Up to the introduction of the antigen testing, if someone in your child’s pod tested positive, your child was not deemed a close contact and only needed to go for a test if they were symptomatic. This is a welcome step up from that. In my opinion, contact tracing needs to be reintroduced while the rollout of the vaccination for 5-12 year olds should help also,” he said.

Managing
In Ballinrobe, St Joseph’s Primary School is the largest in the county with 445 pupils. While they have had positive cases, school principal Dymphna Culhane reports that case numbers have been quite low.
“We’ve had small numbers so it has been manageable and thankfully everybody who contracted it is okay,” she told The Mayo News.
She said their approach all along has been to follow the public health advice and agrees that antigen testing will help.
“If wearing masks is brought in, it is something we will do. It isn’t a choice … Some kids wear masks, their parents want them to. If mask wearing among certain age groups is made compulsory there will probably be a mixture of views among parents. We just implement and follow the instructions we are given from a public health perspective,” she said.
One of the primary goals is to avoid a return to the March 2020 lockdown and home schooling, Ms Culhane adds.  
“We wouldn’t want to see another lockdown. Keeping the schools open is vital for children. We did our best when we were closed before with online learning but it is definitely better for the children to be in school,” she said.