As the country moves into level 5 restrictions once again, the rules are clear for everybody: Shops and businesses are closing. The Dáil continues to sit in the National Convention Centre, so that they can socially distance. Mass is too dangerous to be said. Going further than five kilometres from your own home is to become a crime.

But in Irish schools, the story is entirely different. Not only are there no new Covid measures, but the old ones, it seems were considered too demanding. The Department of Education issued a circular yesterday, in conjunction with the department of health, redefining what a “close contact” is in a school setting:

In other words, a teenager who tests positive for Covid 19 is no longer considered a close contact of the person they’ve been sitting next to all day long, and is only a close contact if they were within two metres of somebody, at lunchtime, for more than fifteen minutes.

But that’s an entirely different standard than the HSE uses in every other setting.

For example, here’s what the HSE says about being a close contact on public transport:

sitting within 2 seats of someone who has COVID-19 on public transport or an airplane

No mention of masks there, either, you’ll note. So, on a bus, if you’re sitting, wearing your mask, and someone two seats over has covid 19, you’re a close contact.

But in a school, if you’re sitting within two seats of an infected person for an entire day, you are not a close contact?

What’s going on?

Last week, we reported that teachers across the country are increasingly concerned that there’s a co-ordinated effort to reduce the numbers of covid positive cases traced to schools:

One (teacher) spoke of a situation in her school where a student was diagnosed Covid positive on a Monday:

Because the Government’s contact tracing only goes back 48 hours, nobody in the school was contact traced as a potential close contact. This is despite the fact that one of my colleagues was in close contact with this particular student on a Friday. But the Government says that doesn’t count, because it is 48 hours. So as far as they’re concerned, he either got the virus at home, or somewhere else, and nobody in the school needs to be tested”.

Another mentioned the fact that asymptomatic children testing positive are not being linked directly to clusters in schools:

“You have this situation where a child is asymptomatic. They could bring the virus home to their parents, who test positive, with symptoms. The child is tested positive as well, and they’re put down as a family contact. When the truth is that they brought it home from school. But the school doesn’t come into it, as far as the HSE are concerned”.

By far the biggest concern, however, was about the level of social distancing in schools, where it was perceived that mask-wearing and social distancing in classrooms was “a nonsense”.

“They come into the class. They wear their masks. And then they leave the classroom, and go out into the yard, and they’re practically licking each other” one teacher said.

Teachers contacted by Gript are almost united in their view that the Government is doing everything it can to artificially lower the number of Coronavirus cases linked to education. By re-defining close contact in the way that they did yesterday, it’s hard to disagree with the teacher’s assessment.