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No surprise at rise in infected pupils, says expert amid concern over holding of transfer tests


Warning: Queen’s University virologist Dr Connor Bamford

Warning: Queen’s University virologist Dr Connor Bamford

Warning: Queen’s University virologist Dr Connor Bamford

A Queen’s University virologist said all the warning signs were there that the infection rate in children would rise, amid concerns the holding of transfer tests has increased the rate of Covid infections in schools.

Infection rates are rising highest in the 10-14 age group, with the 5-9 age group also going up.

“Without adequate mitigation measures in place, Covid-19 will continue to spread,” warned Dr Connor Bamford.

“We know what leads to high levels of infection.

"This includes no vaccination, little testing and isolation, and prolonged indoor and crowded contact without ventilation.

“All of these preconditions of spread are found in and around schools with young children.

“The fact we are not seeing high levels in older groups is because of the high vaccination levels and sensible control measures in place.

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"Unfortunately, such high levels of infections in children will result in undue harm to children and their families.”

Asked if the transfer tests might not have been the best idea he added: “You could say that, as long as other mitigations weren’t in place”.

The president of the National Association of Head Teachers said there continues to be protection of the education system at the expense of children’s welfare.

“It is easy to argue that one overriding characteristic of our education system’s response has been to prioritise the machinery of systems above the needs of our children,” said Dr Graham Gault.

“When, in September, the guidance for isolation changed, along with a redefining of ‘close contacts’ and a new and very limited contact tracing programme in schools, there was plenty of speculation amongst school principals.

"Knowing that the isolation guidance would mean that many children would be more frequently in and out of school, school leaders suspected there was an agenda to ensure that the academic selection processes would go ahead at all costs.

“The numbers of Covid infections seem to dramatically demonstrate the folly of this direction of travel.”

The Irish National Teacher’s Organisation called into question the wisdom of holding transfer tests during the pandemic.

“INTO are aware that despite the ongoing increase in Covid cases in the 10-14 age group that some schools have continued to conduct the unregulated entrance exams as part of their transfer procedures to post primary,” the union said.

“The need for more schools to consider alternative approaches in this procedure would be most welcome given this unprecedented situation." 

At Stormont, the Education Minister reinforced the message that there would be no circuit breaker closure of schools ahead of the Christmas break.

DUP minister Michelle McIlveen admitted that the school attendance rate “is not as high as we would have liked” but added that guidance for schools was in place and should be followed.

“The Executive was clear about this. We have to make sure our young people maximise the number of days they are in school,” Ms McIlveen told Assembly members.

Primary school attendance in September to October was 93.2%, down from 95.1% in the same period last year. In post primary is was 91% compared to 93.1% in 2020.

“While Covid is a factor, it is not by any means the only factor,” said Ms McIlveen.

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