The Department of Education and the Minister for Education have come in for strong criticism from unions representing teachers over what has been described as their failure “to provide alternative time-bound working arrangements for teachers who have been ineligible to receive vaccines.”
School staff in early pregnancy and certain cohorts of immune-compromised members are not currently eligible for vaccination.
In a joint statement from the INTO, the ASTI and the TUI today, the teacher unions said that with increasing concern in respect of very high rates of community infection and growing unease about the transmissibility of the delta variant, they “are alarmed that this small cohort of the school workforce is being sent back to school settings prematurely, prior to getting the opportunity to achieve significant vaccine protection.”
The statement added: “Three months ago, public health advisers assured education unions that all of our members would be offered vaccines before the next school year began. While we acknowledge that the vast majority of our members have received vaccines in advance of schools reopening, we find it incredible that government expects vulnerable members in the early stages of their pregnancy to return to school buildings without vaccine protection.
“Over the last number of weeks, we have called on the Department of Education to engage with these workers directly and to provide short term relief, enabling them to work from home for a short period of time until they have the same opportunity as all other education workers to build up immunity against Covid-19,” it said.
The statement added: “For the entirety of the last academic term, all pregnant teachers were permitted to work from home, and not a single child was unable to attend their school on foot of that sensible precaution. Pregnant workers in the early stages of their pregnancy represent a small cohort of all pregnant staff and so any impact on the delivery of education would be lower still as they would continue to work remotely.
“We condemn the failure of the Minister for Education and the Department of Education to provide alternative time-bound working arrangements for teachers who have been ineligible to receive vaccines. To cause a group of pregnant workers to endure weeks of anxiety and fear is unconscionable. We reiterate today our call for swift action to be taken to permit these workers to work from home and support pupils remotely, until such time as they achieve significant vaccine protection.”
Earlier today, education minister Norma Foley sought to give assurances to unvaccinated pregnant teachers that they will be safe upon a return to school in the coming days and weeks.
She said that her department had taken a “cautious” approach so far in seeking the latest medical advice.
“If it is their view that there is something unique or particular to that individual pregnancy then of course the opportunity to avail of pregnancy-related sick leave remains that has always been there and it continues to remain,” the minister said.
Public health advice recommends that pregnant women wait until 14 weeks to get a first dose of the vaccine, with a second dose before the end of 36 weeks.
Ms Foley said she was “very confident” that the public health measures introduced for schools would be enough to keep staff and pupils safe – even against the more infectious Delta variant of the virus.
She also said that all carbon dioxide monitors for schools, promised earlier this year by the Department of Education, will be delivered by the first week of September.
Ms Foley said that the monitors were an “additional tool” only in tackling Covid-19 and the idea was that they would be “portable” and able to be shared across various classrooms.