Education news

Teachers welcome proposal for PHA to take over Covid contact tracing

The return to school has seen young children across the north being tested for Covid-19
Jonathan McCambridge, PA

A proposal for health officials to take over responsibility for tracing Covid close contacts in schools will allow teachers to return to working with children, a union boss has said.

Teaching unions were briefed on the plan, which still needs to be officially approved, to have the Public Health Agency (PHA) take over contact tracing during a meeting on Wednesday.

The current policy, in which teachers have been largely responsible for tracing close contacts, has been widely criticised.

It is hoped the new proposal would reduce the number of children who are currently absent due to close contact with a positive case and reduce pressure on the PCR testing system.

Speaking following the meeting with education and health officials, principal of Maghaberry Primary School and president of National Association of Headteachers NI Graham Gault said some teachers had been spending all of their time contact tracing.

He said: “With the PHA taking on contact tracing it will free up our school leaders to attend to their core business which is learning and teaching, that in itself will be very, very welcome.

“It has been like nothing we ever experienced before. The rates of transmission across society have been such that the schools have been the victim.

“Principals were basically spending all of their time in many schools doing contact tracing which meant very important aspects of their core business were not getting any attention.”

During a meeting of a Stormont committee on Wednesday, an official from the Department of Education said updated guidance for dealing with Covid cases in Northern Ireland’s schools should be issued this week.

James Hutchinson told MLAs at the education committee: “We accept that has been a real pressure on staff.

“Our ambition would be to have a much tighter system of identification so that only those who absolutely need to self-isolate are told to do so.

“We can point to evidence from colleagues in Scotland which would suggest that only 5% of close contacts of a pupil in a school ever go on to become infected, so really we are trying to find the means to relieve the burdens on schools.”

“We would very much hope that, before the end of this week, and hopefully tomorrow, we will have something concrete to put out there.”

Current guidance states that a pupil identified as a close contact must stay away from school and undergo a PCR test on the second day. If negative, they can then return to school but must undertake another PCR test on the eighth day after contact.

SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan told the committee there seems to be “a cultural issue” in the Department of Education which has led to “poor planning and strategy” around Covid.

“Everything that this department has been doing is entirely reactionary, dependent on what happens and dependent on whatever day of the week it is,” he said, “which is exactly why we’re in the situation we are in today where children en masse are having to be isolated from schools and teachers and school leaders are furious about that reality.

“The reality is that the department is failing children and teachers and principals miserably.”

Mr Hutchinson said: “There will be disruptions which are sporadic in nature, but hopefully, if the infection rate settles down and we can narrow down close contact arrangements, we will see many many fewer pupils being asked to self-isolate and for shorter periods.”

Mr McCrossan replied: “Schools are safe places and they are safe because of the hard work of our teachers and our principals and the mitigations they have put in place.

“But schools are being made unsafe continually by the failures of this department and the feet-trailing that goes on, and the poor reactions to the situation our schools are facing during Covid-19.”

Members agreed to a suggestion from chairman Chris Lyttle that the committee should request an urgent joint meeting with the Health Committee to hear evidence from the health and education ministers.

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