October 17, 2020
Testing and tracing of school staff and students must be scaled up significantly – Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire TD

Sinn Féin spokesperson on Education Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire TD has called for significant improvements in the testing and tracing regime. He was speaking following reports today in the Irish Examiner that students who have been in receipt of support from an SNA who tested positive have not been deemed close contacts. 

Teachta Ó Laoghaire said:

“The report from this morning’s Irish Examiner is concerning. It is difficult to imagine – given the intense and very often close and intimate support offered by SNAs – that children who were being supported by an SNA, and who were not wearing masks, were not deemed close contacts.

“This is not the first such example I have heard and there is increasing concern among school staff I speak to that the testing and tracing regime is inadequate.

“I am regularly being informed of situations where school staff who are close contacts are only being informed several days after a positive test arrives. They are concerned that in the interim – because they have been kept in the dark – they have not been able to limit their movements within the school. Others are concerned that there are instances where they have not been deemed a close contact, even though they have been in close proximity to a Covid-positive student.

“Teachers and school staff deserve to feel safe in their workplace. These delays are not good enough. 

“Frankly, some have expressed a view and a fear to me, that a different and a lesser approach is being taken to who is and isn’t a close contact in schools. 

“I would hope very much that that fear can be dispelled. But that can only be done by ensuing a very rigorous and comprehensive approach to testing and in particular tracing in schools, and ensuring the confidence of school staff, students and families in the system. Certainly many school staff expressed surprise at statements that there was mass testing in schools by the Minister for Education – that hasn’t been their experience.” 

Deputy Ó Laoghaire has also said that there needs to be greater levels of communication and leadership from the Minister:

 “There are over one million children and staff in our schools. School goers, staff and their families represent a significant cohort of the population. So we know that cases will occur, and nobody wants to create hysteria or panic. However, I am concerned that we may be going too far in the opposite direction, with inadequate information provided to the school community.

“I have also spoken with parents who have been affected by cases in their children’s schools. They are legitimately worried that they are not being communicated with. In some instances of course, there are good reasons for their children not being deemed close contacts. It does seem, however, that communication between schools and the parents of children who are not close contacts is not entirely consistent.

“If a vacuum of information exists, it will be filled, and perhaps not always in a factual way. If parents are not confident in the official channels of information, then speculation will occur. Rumours will abound about schools, both true and false.

“The Department must urgently reconsider how it communicates with parents, with students, and with school staff, both on a local, school level, but also nationally on a wider scale.

“I wrote to Minister Norma Foley some weeks’ ago asking that she consider taking part in periodic public health briefings; akin to those attended on a semi-regular basis by Ministers Varadkar and Donnelly and the Taoiseach.

“I believe this would be of value to reflect on the overall picture, identifying how frequent cases are within schools, how they have been dealt with, how processes are being improved. I am yet to receive a response from her.

“Sinn Féin supports the overall objective that schools stay open safely and sustainably in the long run. To keep kids in schools, parents must feel confident that they are being fully informed. Similarly, teachers and school staff must not feel worried going into their workplace.”

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