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Schools battle to get advice off HSE on new guidelines

Private schools are finding it difficult to access HSE advice and guidance on how to manage outbreaks or deal with Covid-19 cases due to a lack of PCR testing.

Meanwhile, principals of mainstream schools are frustrated at seeking guidance from a public health helpline set up to help them manage cases.

Teachers who called the helpline on Friday claimed that staff who responded to the calls were not adequately briefed on the new public health guidelines that went into effect the night before.

Friday’s rule change reduced isolation times for positive cases, and close contacts who received a booster dose can return to work sooner as long as they undergo antigen tests and wear high-quality masks.

Peric Clerkin, chief executive of the Irish Principal Network of Directors, said the issues were “undermining trust”.

Some parents of children with special educational needs have not been able to secure PCR tests after a positive antigen test at home due to high demand.

This means that contact tracing that was previously available to private schools cannot take effect because it usually only occurs after a positive PCR test is confirmed. However, the ability to test has been overshadowed in recent weeks by the significant increase in the number of cases being reported each day since the Omicron variant became dominant.

When contact tracing was removed from schools earlier in the school year, it was reserved for children under 13 who were not fully vaccinated and who were in settings with special educational needs or temporary care. They will be referred for a public health risk assessment and may be asked to take a Covid-19 test or restrict movements.

Sometimes, the demand for PCR testing has greatly exceeded capacity, prompting HSE to announce new testing rules last month to free up capacity. During this time, doctors They are under great pressure as people with symptoms seek access to tests.

Mr Clerkin said schools need timely public health advice when outbreaks or confirmed cases occur so that good decisions can be made to protect students and staff. He said problems with the Public Health Helpline on Friday made life more difficult for school administrators and would have to be resolved in the future.

“If you reach this helpline and don’t get the required clarity, it undermines trust in the system and means you cannot share appropriate information with parents,” said Mr. Clerkin. “It makes the difficult situation worse.” And he repeated calls for tracing contacts to fully return to schools.

Health, Safety and Environment acknowledged yesterday that new Covid-19 guidelines that took effect Friday may pose challenges for employees who operate the principals’ helpline.

“The principals’ helpline remains available to schools, and public health departments are making tremendous efforts to provide the best possible service to schools, given the scale of the pandemic at this time,” a spokeswoman said.

“The updated guidance was relatively new to everyone on Friday, so a little tolerance if departments don’t get it 100% on the first day would be a good thing.”

She said schools for children with special educational needs remained a public health priority and HSE said she hoped to be able to use antigen testing for this group, if approved by health and education officials.

“Wherever there are cases in these settings, regional public health departments conduct a Public Health Risk Assessment (PHRA) and determine appropriate actions to be taken, given the specific circumstances and needs of individuals who have been identified as close contacts. Children in these settings, the spokeswoman said. They will continue to offer PCR tests regardless of age and vaccination status.

“If, for a particular child, the PCR test is considered inappropriate – as the child may find it too troublesome – then antigen testing is acceptable. Adults – teachers – who are in close contact are administered in the same way as any other close contact in the community after PHRA .”

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