Sinn Féin spokesperson on Education Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire has called for significant improvements in the testing and tracing regime.
He was speaking following a report today that Cork students who have been in receipt of support from a special needs assistant (SNA) who tested positive have not been deemed close contacts.
“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," Mr Ó Laoghaire said.
“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."
According to today's Irish Examiner, Cork secondary school students in class with an SNA who tested positive for Covid-19 were not deemed close contacts by the HSE, even though they were not wearing masks.
"An SNA who is positive worked side by side, hand-feeding, and toileting, at an intimate care level with some of these students," a staff member said. "Even when we told the HSE they didn't wear masks, they said they're not close contacts."
Mr Ó Laoghaire said he is repeatedly being told 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," he said. "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."
In a statement, the HSE said: "It is important to note that controlled school/work settings may have fewer close contacts identified because of the nature of compliance with social distancing, hand hygiene etc. compared to social contacts/settings.
"In any instance where a case of Covid-19 is linked to an educational facility, public health professionals speak directly with the person, or family as appropriate, and ask them about their contacts.
"Children who are not identified as a close contact do not need a test, and can continue to attend school. Likewise with staff."