‘HSE is afraid to admit it was wrong to ditch contact tracing,’ says school principal

The principal of a school where more than 40 pupils are absent due to reasons linked to to Covid-19 said he has “lost faith” in the public health system.

imon Lewis, principal of Carlow Educate Together School, contacted the HSE about the rising number of cases among students.

He was told he would receive a call back that day and later received a generic letter by email, informing him that “these cases are reflective of transmission of the virus within the community”.

“Whatever little faith I had in the system evaporated with that letter,” he told the Irish Independent.

“It was impossible for them to ascertain whether these were community outbreaks or a school outbreak without even speaking to me and bothering to check.

“It’s been a very frustrating couple of days.”

Since the new academic year began, there has only been one day where he had his full team of 28 staff.

Principals are “spending hours” trying to find teachers to stand in. Substitution issues existed long before the pandemic but have been compounded in recent weeks, Mr Lewis said.

“Children with additional needs are having supports taken away as special needs assistants are having to be put into mainstream classes.

“When we speak up about it, people say we’re trying to get schools closed down. Nobody wants that, no teacher or principal wants that.

“I think there’s this feeling at the minute that Nphet and the HSE don’t want to admit they got it wrong by stopping contact tracing.

“There’s this fear that if they admit the situation in schools is bad, there will be a demand for schools to close. That doesn’t need to happen.

“Everyone is being upfront about nurses and doctors working in difficult circumstances, and they’re not downing tools. Teachers won’t down tools either, they want to teach.”

In a text message to parents, Mr Lewis said the attendance rate at school last week was roughly 60pc. He urged anyone with a child feeling under the weather to err on the side of caution.

When a family gives permission for him to share information with a class about a positive case, he does so. However, he said the decision to remove contact tracing is the reason why the situation in schools has become so serious.

“The frustrating thing for principals is we’ve been saying this for such a long time. If we remove mitigation factors, then we’re going to see the virus spreading. It’s no surprise to me we have a crisis now with so many children out with Covid-19. When you take away the best defence, as inconvenient as it might have been, this is the outcome of it.”

Mr Lewis believes there is “no advantage” in closing schools. Instead, he said the priority should be putting proper mitigation factors in place. While free antigen testing was welcome, he said it was as if the Department of Education only introduced it as a “box-ticking exercise” and it was unlikely to improve the situation in schools.

He said that while authorities had “done a lot of good”, their failure to admit to certain mistakes had “undermined all the good”.

“People are very black and white about this stuff and when they fail to admit some things have gone wrong, it can feed into those who are coming up with conspiracy theories. It reduces trust in public health.”

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