Minister for Education Norma Foley has ruled out allowing pregnant teachers who are unvaccinated to work remotely.
The country’s three main education trade unions, the INTO, the ASTI and TUI, earlier criticised the Minister in a joint statement and called “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”.
Currently, pregnant women are not advised under public health recommend to get vaccinated until 14 weeks into their pregnancy which means for many of them they will not be fully protected for six weeks after that once, they have received both doses.
Speaking in Dublin on Wednesday, Ms Foley said she sought the “best possible medical advice” as to how to cater for pregnant teaching staff. That advice came from the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and public health experts who recommended that pregnant teachers should continue to work in the classroom until they get vaccinated.
“There may well be situations that occur where an individual might not be deemed appropriate for them to return to work. If that is the case, there is a pregnancy-related leave and that remains in place. At every stage we have followed public health advice,” Ms Foley said.
“This offers reassurance to teachers, pupils and staff that all that happens within a school environment is endorsed by public health. We have never deviated from public health advice and to do so now would be remiss. This is not something we are recommending, it’s a recommendation we are receiving from the experts in the field.
“Women are entitled to avail of that [pregnancy-related leave] and there is 183 days available [six months]. There is a misconception that it impacts on an individual’s attempt to avail of sick leave going forward.”
The unions said school staff in the early stages of pregnancy and certain cohorts of immune-compromised workers were not currently eligible for vaccination.
“With increasing concern in respect of very high rates of community infection and growing unease about the transmissibility of the Delta variant being central to regular public health messages from Nphet, we 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 said public health advisers assured the unions three months ago that all their 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 the Government expects vulnerable members in the early stages of their pregnancy to return to school buildings without vaccine protection.”
The three unions said that over recent weeks they had called on the Department of Education to “engage with these staff” 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”.
The unions said that during 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.”