School return plan for pregnant teachers is based on ‘expert advice’, Minister says

Teachers’ unions want unvaccinated school staff to be let work from home temporarily

Minister for Education Norma Foley said a requirement for most unvaccinated pregnant teachers to return to the classroom from September is guided by expert public health advice. File photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Minister for Education Norma Foley said a requirement for most unvaccinated pregnant teachers to return to the classroom from September is guided by expert public health advice. File photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

A controversial requirement for most pregnant teachers who are not vaccinated against Covid-19 to return to the classroom from September is guided by expert public health advice, Minister for Education Norma Foley has said.

Speaking in Tralee, Co Kerry, on the issue on Thursday, Ms Foley acknowledged: “I appreciate that [it] is a wonderful time for people [pregnant staff] but it is also a time for anxiety and concern. I want to absolutely be clear that we are following public health advice, we are following the advice of occupational health, we are following the advice and recommendations of the Institute of Obstetrics and Gynaecology [the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists] in terms of catering for staff who are pregnant,” she said.

“Should at any stage that change then we will change as well, but that is [the] best advice that is being made available to us.”

The revised public health advice – which was changed last month – on whether pregnant teachers should work inside the classroom or work remotely has sparked controversy among teachers’ unions, who say it will expose vulnerable staff members to Covid-19. The revised guidelines now state that it is safe for most pregnant teachers to attend the workplace unless they have an underlying medical condition.

Pregnant women are advised to take a Covid-19 vaccine between weeks 14 and 36 of their pregnancy.

Teachers’ unions want the Department of Education to allow unvaccinated pregnant teachers to be allowed work from home temporarily until they are fully immunised.

Many such pregnant teachers say they are willing to take sick leave or maternity leave in order to avoid returning to crowded classrooms where they worry they will be at high risk of contracting Covid-19.

One pregnant teacher, who declined to be named, said: “Everyone is in shock that this is all happening and how disrespectfully we have been treated by the Department of Education and the unions we pay.”

Ms Foley, however, said public health advice had been followed “every step of the way” in relation to the reopening of schools.

“We have followed the recommendations of the experts in the field and in this instance we are doing similarly. We have taken expert advice.”

Remote working

The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO), however, said unvaccinated pregnant teachers and others who have been unable to get the vaccine should be given the option of remote working until they are immunised fully.

“We have called for the department to engage with these workers directly, to explain and defend the latest public health advice, and in practical terms, to establish a helpline to provide advice directly to affected cohorts,” said INTO general secretary John Boyle.

“We have also called for this defined cohort of workers to be facilitated fairly with remote working until they have achieved the significant vaccine protection, which has been afforded to all other education workers.”

He said “intensive engagement” between education partners, the Department of Education and public health officials will continue throughout August.

Privately, however, senior education sources say there is little prospect of a change in advice due partly to concerns over a “domino effect” across the public sector.

They have emphasised that the reopening of education has consistently been driven by up-to-date public health advice and this is not about to change.

Ms Foley also said she was confident that schools will be able to reopen safely in the coming weeks.

“We have continued right throughout the summer to engage with public health and they have advised that schools are controlled environments, that schools have worked very, very well and that all of the infection prevention and control measures that are required are in place in our schools,” she said.

“We put in the addition this year of CO2 monitors. Interestingly, public health have made the point that when you see an increase of Covid-19 in children or young people it is generally when they are not in school. That is a tribute to the work that is being done in school communities in terms of ensuring that they are the controlled and safe environments they should be.”

Face masks

She also defended Department of Education reopening guidance which states that face masks are not necessary for primary school children, on the basis that this advice was provided by public health authorities.

While some academics who advocate a “zero Covid” policy say such mask usage is needed given that the growing case numbers of the disease are concentrated among unvaccinated younger people, Ms Foley said public health advice has served us “very well” during the pandemic and the department will continue to follow that advice.

She added that the successful running of both the Leaving Cert exams and an enhanced summer provision scheme for vulnerable children has given “great confidence” to families.

“I have met so many parents and guardians and children themselves who tell me they are immensely looking forward to the return to school,” she said.