Section 3: Identification and Response to Symptoms

Asymptomatic Testing

Working alongside the DoH and PHA, DE and the EA continue to support the operation of two asymptomatic testing programmes for both post-primary and special school pupils and staff in all schools:

  • Lateral Flow Device (LFD) testing
  • Loop-mediated Isothermal Amplification (LAMP) testing.

Both of these testing programmes aim to identify pupils who are infected but do not realise it so they can be advised to isolate so reducing the risk of them unwittingly spreading infection in the school and elsewhere. This will help to break the chain of transmission of the virus. It is for this reason that the Department encourages all staff and pupils who are offered these testing programmes to participate.

Both asymptomatic testing programmes do not replace the current PHA testing protocols for those with symptoms. Anyone with symptoms (even if they have had a negative LFD test result) should still self-isolate immediately according to PHA guidelines.

The testing programmes are an additional layer of mitigation against COVID-19 in schools and all other mitigating measures should continue to be applied.

Testing is voluntary and no pupil should be tested unless informed consent has been given by the child’s parent or guardian, or the child if they are over 16, and the child is willing to be tested.

Details on the operation of both testing programmes and what to do if a test is positive is available on the EA website.

LFD testing in schools is available to all mainstream school staff and pupils in the appropriate year groups and the swab-based tests are to be conducted at home with a result given within 30 minutes. To date, pupils in years 8-14 have been offered to participate in the LFD testing programme. Participants are encouraged to test twice each week during school terms and to upload their results (either positive or negative) to the online portal in order that these results can be collated.

LAMP testing is a saliva-based test that is available on a weekly basis for pupils and staff in special schools. These tests are analysed off site with results provided to the school the same day.

Pupils becoming Symptomatic at School

All members of the educational establishment, including staff and pupils, should be continually supported to understand the symptoms to look for. The symptoms of COVID-19 can be found on the PHA website .

If anyone displays symptoms of COVID-19, they, and any members of their household within that school setting, must be sent home and advised to follow the PHA guidance for households with a possible COVID-19 infection. Schools should keep a full record of such actions and request that a parent, carer, or guardian record their acknowledgement of this action.

If, however, a child does not have symptoms of COVID-19 but has other flu or cold-like symptoms, such as a runny nose, they do not need to be tested and do not need to self-isolate. The child can go to school if fit to do so.

Protective Quarantine

Quarantine is a routine public health practice used to protect the general public and school population by preventing exposure to people who have, or may have, a contagious disease. This separates sick people with a contagious disease from people who are not sick.

A child awaiting collection should be protectively quarantined and moved, if possible, to a room where they can be behind a closed door (for example a school first-aid room). In addition:

  • Schools should be mindful of appropriate safeguards to ensure that students are quarantined in a non-threatening manner, within the line of sight of adults, and for as short a time as possible until the young person can be collected and taken home.
  • Children should never be locked in a room or left unaccompanied and appropriate adult supervision must be provided at all times. 
  • The room should have adequate ventilation and, where windows facilitate being opened, they should be opened to increase air circulation. 
  • If it is not possible to fully quarantine the child in a separate room, or if such quarantine is not considered appropriate due to a child’s emotional health and wellbeing requirements, as a protective measure for them and others, they should be moved to an area which is at least 2m away from other people. 
  • Schools should actively plan for this eventuality and a risk assessment should be undertaken to address this.
  • Schools must fully document this process to ensure a record is held of who made the decision, where quarantine occurred, who was contacted, who provided supervision, the duration of the quarantine and who picked up the child.
  • If the child needs to go to the bathroom while waiting to be collected, they should use a separate bathroom if possible.  The bathroom should be cleaned and disinfected before being used by anyone else.
  • PPE should be worn by staff caring for the child while they await collection if direct personal care is needed and a distance of 2m cannot be maintained (such as for a very young child or a child with complex needs).
  • If the child is seriously ill or injured or their life is at risk, call 999.  Do not visit the GP, pharmacy, urgent care centre or a hospital.

If a member of staff (who was wearing the appropriate PPE and adhering to the social distancing guidelines) has helped someone with a new, continuous cough or a high temperature or loss of taste/smell, they do not need to go home unless they develop symptoms themselves. PPE will only exempt an individual from being a close contact if disposable gloves, disposable apron, surgical mask +/- eye protection is worn and if the individual was trained in appropriate donning and doffing of said PPE.

Hands should be washed thoroughly for 20 seconds after any contact with someone who has developed symptoms.  Cleaning affected areas with available cleaning products, followed by disinfection after someone with symptoms has left will reduce the risk of passing the infection on to other people.

Response to a Positive Case of COVID-19

The PHA website details the procedures to be followed by any individual who is symptomatic or has been identified as a positive case through a PCR test. Further information on what to do if a person is asymptomatic but has either a positive LFD or LAMP test can be found on the EA website .

Contact Tracing

When a positive case is identified, the PHA’s Contact Tracing Service will take the lead in identifying close contacts. On 9 September the Minister of Education wrote to all school principals to inform them of the agreement with the Minister of Health that schools would no longer have a significant  role in contact tracing and that the PHA would be lead on this task.

In his letter of 9 September to pupils, parents and the school community, the Chief Medical Officer outlined the rationale for the PHA taking a more targeted approach to the identification of close contacts in schools. He explained that this took account of studies that showed only a very small proportion of school close contacts went on to develop COVID-19 and also the very low risk of severe disease in children. The Chief Medical Officer also referenced studies showing that teachers are not at a greater risk of hospitalisation or death through COVID-19 than other comparable adults, also noting that all school staff will have had the opportunity to be vaccinated.

The PHA-led approach to contact tracing would no longer usually require the involvement of schools, except in limited circumstances including:

  • Difficulties identifying close contacts directly with parents or children due to age or issues with communication;
  • Difficulty obtaining contact information for cases and/ or contacts;
  • Complexities with particular risk or vulnerabilities needing joint assessment;
  • Large clusters and outbreaks identified through on-going PHA surveillance.

Close contacts identified by the PHA are asked to self-isolate and be tested in line with PHA protocols. Schools should therefore not send pupils home or ask them to self-isolate as close contacts.

Further information on this issue was made available to schools in a guidance note on 14 September.

Information on the operation of the PHA’s Contact Tracing Service in educational settings, including frequently asked questions are available from the PHA website.

Any queries from school leaders relating to the disruption caused in school by suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19 should be directed to the Education Authority helpline on 02890418056 or via confirmed.covid19@eani.org.uk.

Non-Compliance with Contact Tracing Service

There may be some staff members and/or pupils, who do not comply with the public health guidance on COVID-19, including choosing not to follow the advice to get tested or self-isolate. Equally, some SEN pupils may be physically unable to take a COVID-19 test.

Where it is clear to a Principal that such an individual has either:

  • Been identified by the PHA as a close contact of a confirmed case and informed that they should be self-isolating;
  • travelled to a location that requires 10 days quarantine on return (details can be found here); or
  • is displaying clear COVID-19 symptoms.

The Principal should inform them that they cannot attend the school until the necessary processes for self-isolation have been completed. They should also remind pupils and parents of the pupil behaviour and the parental support required in line with the introduction section of this guidance.  Where such an individual attends school, they should be quarantined in line with the guidance on protective isolation and be sent home from the school.

Where an individual is displaying symptoms of COVID-19 but will not or cannot have a test, the Principal should discuss the situation with the EA helpline on 02890418056 or via confirmed.covid19@eani.org.uk.

StopCOVID NI Proximity App

The StopCOVID NI Proximity App assists in preventing the spread of COVID-19 in Northern Ireland, by anonymously contacting people who have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. All staff are strongly encouraged to download this free application to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 and should comply with PHA protocols on self-isolation. A version of the app is also available for anyone aged 11 years and older, who are residents of Northern Ireland, and use of this for appropriate age groups should be encouraged.  Download the App which also contains further information.

Staff and pupils should be mindful that the app uses the location of each phone to identify contacts. This means that phones stored on handbags, lockers and school bags may inadvertently identify the user as a close contact. Phones should therefore be carried at all times and not left in lockers or bags stored away from the person. Staff and pupils should be encouraged to ‘pause’ the app when they are not carrying their phone with them to limit such unintended notifications.

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