Hundreds of teachers being ordered back to work over the coming days despite suffering serious illnesses which leave them particularly vulnerable to Covid-19 are facing “life or death”, it has been warned.
The Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) said it was dealing with a surge in queries from worried members – with the likes of cancer, heart conditions and diabetes – who had been refused the option of staying at home.
Ann Piggott, vice-president of the ASTI, estimates as many as one such case for each of Ireland's 723 secondary schools.
“This is their health, their life. While they may not be classified currently as very high risk, if they pick up the virus they don’t have a hope. Their lives are totally on the line here,” she told The Irish Times.
The Department of Education has told teachers and other staff categorised under Health Service Executive guidelines as "very high risk" for coronavirus to cocoon.
But those classed as “high risk” have been told they “must attend the workplace, unless advised otherwise” after a risk assessment by an outsourced occupational health service.
Those at “high risk” of contracting Covid-19 include people with heart failure, chronic kidney disease, liver disease, cancer, weak immune systems and obesity.
Ms Piggott said one teacher battling acute leukaemia, diabetes type 2, asthma, anaemia and an auto-immune disorder has been told to return to work after getting a risk assessment.
In a letter, he wrote: “I feel like a turkey waiting for Christmas.”
Ms Piggott said “as time goes on, we are getting more and more of these letters”.
“Healthy people can’t gather in big numbers in outdoor events, yet teachers who are this vulnerable are being asked to gather amid hundreds of people in one enclosed space,” she said.
There are concerns about the scope of the risk assessments, she added.
“I know a lot of teachers with these very serious conditions who have gone to their consultants, and their consultants are shocked that they might even consider being in the position where they could get Covid,” she said.
“Despite having a consultant’s letter, they are not getting any calls or video calls from the occupational health service to expand on their conditions and concerns.”
Dr Nuala O’Connor, Covid-19 lead adviser with the Irish College of General Practitioners (ICGP), said family doctors had noticed an increase in queries over recent weeks from teachers with serious illnesses concerned about returning to “face-to-face working conditions”.
While doctors and consultants can provide reports on their patients for risk assessments, it is the role of the occupational health service – as ordered by the Department of Education – to determine whether teachers should return to work or not.
“Providing occupational health advice is outside the scope of practice of most general practitioners,” said Ms O’Connor.
“The ICGP has advised its members that the patients who are concerned that they may be at risk if they return to their normal work duties in any setting during the Covid pandemic should seek an independent occupational health risk assessment from their employer.”
‘Lives in danger’
Ms Piggott said not all teachers classed as “high risk” want to stay at home, with some believing they could be accommodated in schools.
One idea is matching up high-risk teachers with high-risk students to reduce their risk.
But, to date, no one has been given such choices, she added.
“Teachers are being told to go to work where there are hundreds of people, where government Ministers and experts have said there will be clusters, there will be outbreaks. Their lives are in danger,” she said.
“There is an onus on employers. All employees are entitled to a safe workplace and we are demanding a safe workplace for our members.
“It is a life or death situation for some and we have to do all we can to protect their lives.”
The ASTI has written to Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly asking him to intervene to secure a meeting between the union and the Health Protection Surveillance Centre regarding the reopening of schools for those in the "high risk" category.
A Department of Education spokesman said it had issued guidance for at-risk staff and students returning to school and “more detailed guidance to support schools in implementing these arrangements will be published shortly”.