Hundreds of unvaccinated pregnant teachers have raised concerns about returning to the classroom in September due to Covid-19 safety issues.
Pregnant women are currently advised to take the Covid vaccine between 14 and 36 weeks of their pregnancy.
As a result, many pregnant teachers say they are worried they will be exposed to the virus in crowded classrooms in the early weeks of their pregnancy when the school year resumes.
Revised public health guidelines state that it is safe for most pregnant teachers to attend the workplace unless they have an underlying medical condition.
This is a change to guidelines introduced earlier this year, which permitted all pregnant teachers to work remotely due to concerns over links between Covid-19 and stillbirths.
Teachers’ unions have expressed concern over the change in guidelines, with some calling for remote teaching to be made available to them until they are fully vaccinated.
However, the Department of Education said the revised guidelines, which were changed in mid-July, were based on advice from medical specialists and apply across the public service.
A department spokesman said specialists at the Institute of Obstetrics and Gynaecology had recommended these guidelines for higher risk and pregnant employees in the school sector.
The revised guidance states that a pregnant teacher or special needs assistant (SNA) can safely return to class unless they are classified as “very high risk” due to an underlying medical condition.
All pregnant staff will be required to submit a risk assessment questionnaire to occupational health services, known as Medmark, before the end of their first trimester to determine if it is still safe to continue to work.
The Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) said on Friday it had set out its “serious concerns” to the department and said a return to face-to-face teaching was a departure from the last school year when pregnant teachers were able to work remotely.
"This small group of unvaccinated pregnant teachers should be facilitated to work remotely if they wish until they have the same opportunity as their colleagues to acquire significant vaccine protection," said TUI president Martin Marjoram.
The Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) also called on Minister for Education Norma Foley to “have another look” at the position of unvaccinated pregnant teachers.
The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) estimated that up to 1,600 unvaccinated teachers and special needs assistants face returning to the classroon in September.
INTO general secretary John Boyle said the new guidelines were causing anxiety among many of its vulnerable members and urged that a helpline be set up for them.
A Facebook group which says it represents pregnant teachers has attracted hundreds of members in recent days, while a number of online petitions seeking a reversal of the health decision have received thousands of signatures.
Many pregnant teachers say they are willing to take sick leave or early maternity leave in order to avoid returning to the classroom.
One teacher who has chosen not to be vaccinated until she has her child said she had been advised by her consultant obstetrician not to return to the classroom. She said she plans to take early maternity leave or sick leave as a result.
“The treatment of pregnant teachers and SNAs is shocking. This matter is urgent. It’s causing unnecessary stress and anxiety for us,” she said,
However, Dr Peter Boylan, former master of the current National Maternity Hospital in Holles Street, said earlier this week that any risks to pregnant women associated with returning to work appeared to be very low.
He said doctors and obstetricians should follow the advice of infectious disease experts who were working on the latest available research and data.