“Schools are safe”: it was the mantra repeated by Government ministers last year.
No one is saying it now.
In the face of the latest wave of Covid-19, there is apprehension on the part of everyone – ministers, public health officials, teachers and parents – over how things will turn out over the coming days and weeks.
Public health officials gave the green light for the reopening of schools on Thursday on the basis that there was “no public health rationale” in keeping them closed.
Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said latest evidence remains that schools are a “lower-risk environment for the transmission of the virus” and the majority of children who are infected experience a mild form of the disease.
However, he acknowledged that it was “inevitable” children would pick up the infection from household contacts over the coming days and weeks which, in turn, would lead to more cases and outbreaks in schools.
It was little surprise, then, that so many schools reported record levels of pupil absences this week.
While many were out of school because they were positive cases or close contact, principals say many families have been adopting a “wait-and-see” approach.
“The reality is that if the Omicron strain really is four or five times more transmissible, then all the air filters, open windows and handwashing in the world won’t stop it spreading in school,” said one primary school principal.
So, what does the latest data tell us?
Even before the onset of Omicron, outbreaks in schools were not rare. Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) data released this week showed there were more outbreaks in schools – 514 – in the second half of last year than in any other public setting. This, of course, was at a time when the less transmissible variants were circulating.
Many principals and teachers, however, are sceptical about official coronavirus figures.
The removal of routine testing and tracing from primary schools in late September, they say, resulted in many outbreaks not being recorded.
There is clear evidence of this: under the old testing-and-tracing regime up to 90 outbreaks were being detected in a single week during September.
Yet, in subsequent weeks – without routine contact tracing in schools – the number of detected school outbreaks tumbled, even as Covid cases in the community began to rise.
HSE officials accept that they did not have the same level of oversight or visibility of outbreaks that they did under the old testing-and-tracing regime.
But in the instances where they did respond to outbreaks, they say the majority involved just a handful of cases.
If the number of recorded outbreaks in school is not reliable, a better indicator is the age-related breakdown of confirmed positive cases.
The latest information we have on schools relates to the weeks prior to the Christmas break, when the Omicron variant was just beginning to gain a foothold in the community.
HPSC data shows the incidence of Covid-19 among primary school aged children peaked in mid- to late-November at almost twice the average of all age groups.
It began to fall significantly in December when face masks were introduced, falling back to below the national average when schools broke for Christmas.
The proportion of cases among second-level students – where face masks are mandatory and many are vaccinated – has also remained relatively low.
Given that the Omicron variant is rampant in the community, most expect that an upsurge in school cases is inevitable.
Modelling by public health officials suggests the cases will peak in mid- to late-January, before falling sharply.
Public health officials say the single biggest factor in limiting the spread of Covid-19 in school is keeping symptomatic children or close contacts out of the classroom and following the usual risk-mitigation measures.
Schools, meanwhile, are bracing themselves for a bumpy ride over the coming weeks.
While most managed to keep classes open this week, they worry about how many teaching staff will be available in the event of widespread outbreaks and how sustainable it will be to keep schools open.