Breda O’Brien: Pregnant teachers and SNAs should be allowed work from home

Going to school has potentially catastrophic consequences that could easily be avoided

Pregnant women who contract Covid-19 are 66 per cent more likely to need admission to intensive care, according to a British Medical Journal analysis. Photograph: iStock

Pregnant women who contract Covid-19 are 66 per cent more likely to need admission to intensive care, according to a British Medical Journal analysis. Photograph: iStock

 

As schools begin to reopen, the atmosphere is generally more hopeful, in contrast with the grim resignation that characterised this time last year.

Teachers are beginning to reflect on the long-term effects of the pandemic, while one particular cohort is fervently hoping that it does not have catastrophic consequences on a personal level. The latter is pregnant teachers and special needs assistants (SNAs), especially at primary school, who feel forced into returning to classrooms where pupils do not wear masks.

Pregnant primary teachers and SNAs in their first trimester cannot avoid close contact on a daily basis with small people for whom social distancing is difficult or impossible. They will not be offered a vaccine until 14 weeks and may not be fully vaccinated for up to four weeks after.

At second-level education, pregnant and as yet unvaccinated teachers and SNAs are mingling with students who are part of the age group that has among the highest infection rates but also relatively low vaccination rates so far.

Pregnant women are a high-risk group, especially if older or overweight. A British Medical Journal analysis found that pregnant women who contract Covid-19 were 66 per cent more likely to need admission to intensive care and 88 per cent more likely to need intubation than women who are not pregnant.

Even if the consequences are statistically more serious in later pregnancy, no doctor can predict the impact of Covid-19 on any given individual at any stage of pregnancy.Yet the option of working from home has been taken away. Taking sick leave when they are not sick but are in need of protection is a poor substitute.

These women will be aware of Laura Curtis, who spent 17 days in a coma after contracting Covid-19 when she was 21 weeks’ pregnant, even though she had no underlying conditions. Her story had a positive outcome but it could so easily have been different.

Never sitting a State exam will have some effect when it comes to the Leaving Cert, even if it may not be a catastrophic one

The tragic death of Samantha Willis in Derry and the harrowing combination of a baptism and funeral will also play on their minds, even though it was a death after giving birth. The courage of her husband, Josh Willis, and his campaign to urge everyone to get vaccinated is admirable. The irony is that most pregnant teachers and SNAs want to be vaccinated but are following medical advice to delay until beyond the first trimester.

Long-term effects

Educators who are not consumed with the same level of worry as those who are pregnant, perhaps because they are already vaccinated, are beginning to have the space to reflect on the effects of the pandemic on education, and it is clear that they will be long-term.

For example, the two cohorts who never sat a Junior Cycle exam will not work their way through the system fully until 2023.

Never sitting a State exam will have some effect when it comes to the Leaving Cert, even if it may not be a catastrophic one. The same students will also have missed out on many positive aspects of the creative educational approaches taken in transition year.

The younger age groups had a disrupted end to primary school and the transition to secondary school made even more difficult by the stringent conditions at second level. That cohort, along with any ensuing problems, will not leave secondary school until 2027.

Additionally, students who were in the later stage of primary school were exposed to much heavier social media usage. During lockdowns, it was almost the only way of communicating with friends.

Adults rarely unleash their worst venom online against people they actually know. The younger you are, the less true that is. This will have an impact on schools for years, with a significant uptick in online bullying.

Educational technology

In better news, education has changed forever due to the need to adopt educational technology. Unfortunately, in some cases, the consequences of poverty became even more pronounced because both access to technology and reliable broadband require significant investments. Nonetheless, the level of skill acquired in a tearing hurry by teachers forced into online teaching might have taken years in less pressing circumstances.

Another intriguing effect has been the rise in homeschooling. Applications to Tusla from those wishing to educate their children at home rose from 617 in 2019 to 1,929 in 2020 and are up again in 2021.

Most of these homeschooled children will thrive. Homeschooling will not be a viable option for many others who would like to, however; not least due to a chronic shortage of housing that is affordable on two incomes, much less one.

I would love to see more research on the students who blossomed while homeschooling. Some students find the highly structured school day stifling, while others found it easier to focus at home.

We need to know more in order to improve everyone’s experience of school, especially for those families where homeschooling is, sadly, not an option.

But if some students are miserable in school, there is one particularly distressed and anxious cohort of adults who also need particular care.

I can only hope that the decision not to allow pregnant teachers to work from home will be reversed as soon as possible.

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