Stark divisions have appeared between medical experts on the viability of schools reopening on March 8.
The NI Executive is due to discuss the possibility of pupils being allowed back into the classroom when it meets on Thursday, but faces a choice between the advice of Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride and the Public Health Agency (PHA), who have given now given conflicting evidence, with the PHA appearing to lay the groundwork for some schools to re-open at the start of next month.
Last week, Dr McBride warned that any possible reopening of schools could see the rate of Covid infections leap by up to 50%
Dr McBride said opening schools at “the wrong time” could lead to a massive spike in Covid infections at a time when the R Rate is starting to come under control.
“We know from evidence accumulated that schools and mixing that goes on around schools drive the infection rate in the community,” he said.
“Re-opening schools will certainly add a significant pressure on the R number. The increase would be between 10-50% and that all depends on how schools are re-opened, when they are re-opened and what mitigations are in place.
“The longer we delay the relaxation of restrictions, the more we suppress the community transmission and the more people who receive the vaccination the better placed the Executive will be to gradually ease the restrictions, with a priority on the things that matter most like schools.”
But the PHA has stepped in and is now saying that schools, including special schools, are not a major source of transmission of Covid.
While admitting that school transmission “does occur” the PHA added that this “tends to be small scale”.
A number of meetings have been taking place between education officials, some principals and union representatives ahead of any decision on schools by the NI Executive where a presentation on Covid-19 in schools from the PHA was given.
While the agency did warn that new coronavirus variants are more infectious in general across all age groups, it said they are not worse in children.
Dr Joanne McClean, from the PHA, added that the presentation given to reassure staff at special schools that “while schools are a source of transmission” they were not at high risk from working in a classroom.
“We know that schools add to that R rate and we’re not trying to argue with that,” she said.
“We’ve all been to schools around entry and exit time - it’s around the social gathering that takes place after that.”
Dr McClean said the risk in classrooms can be controlled by schools and that they had “done a huge amount of work” in introducing measures to mitigate transmission.
But the “bit that goes on outside the class”, such as in the morning and afternoon when children are arriving and leaving, is more difficult.
Of 194 post primary schools, 190 have registered at least one case of coronavirus in the 2020-21 school year. Almost 70% of 792 primary schools have also registered at least one infection.
Dr Tom Black, the chair of the British Medical Association (BMA) in Northern Ireland, said he was hopeful that primary schools could reopen on the proposed March 8 date, but said it would be a “big ask” to reopen post-primary schools at the same time.
“The chief medical officer and the Department of Health will look carefully at data and look at the R number - which is 0.8 at the moment,” said Dr Black.
“Opening schools has an increase of between 0.3 and 0.6 in the R number, so we couldn’t do that at the moment.
“Maybe in March, primary schools to open and see what effect it has.
“We really want the schools open before anything else, but secondary schools might be a reach at the moment.”
Stephen McCord, president of the Ulster teachers’ Union, said that safety of pupils and teachers has to come first.
“Of course it is absolutely vital that out children and young people can get back to school,” he said.
“But the overriding factor must be safety, for the,, their teachers and the wider community.
“The return to school must be driven by scientific data, not dates. There is no point in trying to bring too many children back too quickly if this causes a spike in coronavirus infections which enforces another lockdown.”
In Scotland and Wales, the youngest primary school pupils are due to return on February 22.