Covid-19 infections in primary schools have soared in recent months according to an INTO survey.

Primary education system is 'creaking at the seams'

The Covid-19 infection rate amongst primary school children has tripled in recent months according to a new survey by the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO).

The survey asked 3,100 school principals across the country to assess the level of Covid-19 infection they were aware of in their school between 16 and 18 November.

Of the 877 schools that responded, representing a total of 231,912 pupils, 3,726 pupils were reported as testing positive as well as 605 staff. In Cork, 1.2 per cent of pupils involved in the survey tested positive for Covid-19.

The survey also shone a light on the substitution crisis being experienced in Irish schools, recording 11,778 substitutable days during the survey period, 3,693 of which not covered. Of the days where a substitute teacher was available, just under half were filled by a registered primary teacher.

A further 1,255 days were filled by a registered teacher who was not a primary teacher and 865 days were filled by a person who is not registered with the Teaching Council.

According to INTO General Secretary John Boyle, the snapshot survey has exposed a primary education system that is “creaking at the seams”.

He said: “Soaring transmission levels are an indictment of the premature removal of testing and contact tracing from our primary schools, and of the frustrating failure to move quickly to deploy antigen testing.”

Mr Boyle said the cessation of public health risk assessments following primary school outbreaks, and the resulting unavailability of weekly reports detailing infection levels from 27 September, has concealed the escalation of positive case numbers among pupils and staff in primary schools.

He added: “It simply cannot be a coincidence that the number of 5–12 year old children contracting the virus has trebled since crucial public health supports were removed from the primary sector less than two months ago.”

The INTO is now calling for an immediate review of the Covid-19 response plans for primary and special schools to address the upsurge in infection levels since the delta variant took hold in school communities.

The fast-tracking of the booster vaccine programme and the provision of vaccines for children aged under 12 is seen by the INTO as being essential to support the primary education system in the coming months.

From now until Christmas, the union wants clear and consistent public health messaging, scaled-up public health mitigation measures with a renewed emphasis on improving air quality, increased social distancing, and the limiting of congregation within and near school facilities. Commenting on the substitutions crisis, Mr Boyle said the INTO has been warning of a looming crisis for years.

Cork Sinn Féin TD Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire said he found it “shocking” that a union was forced to carry out a survey such as this. He said: “School leaders who filled this out have enough to be doing, they shouldn’t have to also act as contact tracers and data collectors. They were forced to do so because there is a vacuum of information here.”

Without adequate contact tracing carried out by the HSE, we simply do not know the full picture of infection in school settings.”NAR: Hi, pics with INTO and Brain injury stories are not to be used. SA should be the only pic on the page. Thank you