Schools in Northern Ireland face a “complete disaster” in the coming weeks unless more resources are put in place to help them cope with the latest Covid wave, a principal has warned.
ith the number of positive cases linked to the Omicron variant of the virus soaring to record levels over Christmas, doctors are predicting the planned re-opening of schools next week will lead to another “big spike” in Covid cases.
The Department of Education wrote to principals in Northern Ireland on New Year’s Eve to say there would be “no change” in the operations of schools in response to the emergence of the highly-infectious Omicron.
However, Kevin Donaghy, principal of St Ronan’s Primary School in Newry, Co Down, accused the department of not listening to “those at the chalkface”.
“Once the schools are back, and if we see the same level of transmission in the classroom that we are now seeing in the community, then it will be a complete disaster. No one in the Department of Education seems to have a plan,” Mr Donaghy said.
The latest figures from the Department of Health show 35,107 positive Covid cases were recorded in Northern Ireland from December 24 to December 30. There were 21,322 positive cases from December 17 to December 23.
The Department of Health figures were not updated yesterday.
On Friday, a total of 7,215 new cases of coronavirus were reported in Northern Ireland, the highest number of daily cases since the start of the pandemic.
On the same day, there were 314 patients with Covid in hospital, up from 303 on Thursday. There were 34 patients with Covid in hospital ICUs, up by two compared with Thursday.
The vast majority of recent Covid cases are being linked to Omicron. While the most recent evidence suggests the new variant does not cause the same level of serious illness as previous Covid strains, there is growing concern about the impact the large number of cases is having on society.
Dr Laurence Dorman, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP), said GPs’ surgeries were struggling to cope because of the rise in cases and the number of staff absent due to positive cases.
“I think this has been the most difficult period of the pandemic, much of that because of staffing issues,” Dr Dorman told the Sunday Independent.
“Covid is hitting a workforce that is exhausted. We have been doing this for 21 months and everybody is knackered.”
He called for more resources for primary-care services to cope with the ever-increasing demand, and said there was also concern about the impact of the reopening of schools next week.
“As people mix, Covid is spreading. We know Omicron is just so transmissible, so it’s natural there is going to be a big spike,” he said. “Whether that transmits into more hospitalisations, we just don’t know, but we are just so grateful that we have the vaccine.
“If we didn’t have the vaccine, I think we would be in big, big trouble.”
Mr Donaghy said he and other principals had asked the Department of Education to close schools early in the run-up to Christmas.
“This was nothing to do with a circuit-breaker and was more to ensure that children did not have to self-isolate and could enjoy Christmas — which is such a special time for families,” he said.
“However, we were ignored, and a lot of children then caught Covid after December 15, which meant they were in isolation on Christmas Day.
“I think we actually are in a worse position than we were at this time last year. Last year, not a lot of our pupils caught Covid, but there is now a lot who are testing positive.”
Mr Donaghy said no principal wanted to see schools close for a short period unless a better plan was put in place to address the current health crisis.
“There is no point in a short circuit-breaker if we just return to how things are without better supports being put in place for schools,” he said.
“We need a better track and trace system in schools. We also need a bank of supply teachers who can step in when teachers catch Covid. There are enough qualified teachers in the various education bodies to provide the support we need.
“These are the types of measures we need to see, but the Department of Education is not talking enough to the people at the chalkface.”
Chris Donnelly, principal of St John The Baptist Primary School in Belfast, said there was a “real dread” within schools about any return to remote learning, but admitted that “it will be case numbers that will drive things”.
“Coping with the 2,000 to 2,500 daily numbers in mid-December was very difficult for schools due to staff absences and Covid outbreaks in classrooms,” he said.
“If we are hitting daily numbers well in excess of that over the week ahead, then perhaps a short circuit-breaker may be viewed as necessary.
“Even if the Executive and education minister can’t agree on calling one, severe outbreaks and acute staff absence levels in schools may lead to school leaders reluctantly having to make that call regardless.”