Northern Ireland news

Principals ‘left to fend for themselves' over Covid-19

It has been claimed new guidance in schools is putting principals in a difficult situation  

A LEADING teaching union has claimed principals have “been left to fend for themselves” amid new Covid-19 guidance issued to schools.

The National Association of Head Teachers NI (NAHT NI) said the revised guidance from the Education Authority (EA) and Public Health Agency (PHA) had been met with “cynicism” from principals.

The union said that despite requests for contact tracing to be re-instated in schools, “any efforts to manage the potential spread of transmission across school communities has disappeared in all but name”.

It comes as recent figures reveal almost 5,000 cases of Covid-19 were confirmed among staff and pupils in schools.

The new guidance states that where there are a number of Covid cases in a class, principals should ask all pupils - both in primary and post-primary - to take a lateral flow test.

It also says principals do not need to contact the PHA before introducing “extended testing”.

In a joint letter to principals, the EA and PHA said the Omicron variant had “led to a steep increase in Covid-19 case numbers in Northern Ireland and this is now impacting on all of society including schools”, but evidence shows “whilst more transmissible than previous variants, is also generally less severe in its effects with a reduced risk of serious illness and hospitalisation”.

Among the changes to the guidance is the use of lateral flow tests, which were previously advised to be taken twice-weekly by staff and post-primary pupils.

The updated guidance states primary school children should also be asked to take a lateral flow test at home if they are asymptomatic but in a class where there are a number of positive cases.

If the test is negative and the child has no symptoms, they can return to school, but if positive, they should isolate.

It added that “during this period of high community prevalence, it is no longer necessary to discuss the option of extended testing with PHA before making a decision on offering extended testing”.

It also states “due to the high volume of calls regarding confirmed cases in school communities the EA is updating the contact mechanism for schools to improve the prioritisation of calls”.

“Schools will now complete an online form which will be triaged for support,” it added.

But Graham Gault, director of NAHT NI, said the revised guidance was leaving principals having to make “very difficult decisions with potentially very serious ramifications based on their own best judgment”.

“In general terms, mitigations in schools have now been reduced to hand washing, opening windows and wearing masks where appropriate,” he said.

“And, despite trade union requests for reinstated contact tracing, any efforts to manage the potential spread of transmission across school communities has disappeared in all but name, to the extent that even the channels for seeking advice around multiple cases (clusters) has gone, with school leaders being left to complete a form in order to report concerns to EA,” he added.

“The perception of many school leaders is that they have now been left to fend for themselves, making very difficult decisions with potentially very serious ramifications based on their own best judgment.

“This development, along with the continuing staffing crisis, has created a critically difficult context for our school leaders.” 

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