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School a ‘risky situation’ for unvaccinated teachers

Teachers’ representatives alarmed over plight of pregnant teachers

THE Clare chair of a major teaching union has said she has received calls from pregnant, unvaccinated members suffering from severe anxiety at the prospect of having to return to the classroom.
Kate Hehir of St Michael’s Community College in Kilmihil said teachers, who cannot be vaccinated until they are 14 weeks pregnant, have been contacting her about the added stress of being required by The Department of Education to teach in person as the new school year begins.
“I have had calls for women who cannot sleep at night due to the stress,” the Clare Chair of the Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI) said.
“These are not teachers who are looking to make trouble. In some cases, they might have had repeated IVF treatments or recurrent miscarriages.
“These are women who deserve far better protection and to be allowed to work remotely until they are immunised and I can’t understand why the Department won’t support that.”
The advice of the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (NIAC) is that women can be vaccinated after 14 weeks.
Despite calls from all of the unions to excuse pregnant teachers from in-person duties until they are immunised, guidance from the Department of Education is that all staff should return to face-to-face teaching in the coming days and weeks.
“Women are generally very nervous in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and this is creating added anxiety,” Ms Hehir said.
“Many women have had a difficult journey to get pregnant in the first place and now they’re faced with another very stressful situation. “We’re asking the Department of Education to protect unvaccinated women and their unborn children.
“As it is, there’s a 20% miscarriage rate among Irish women. More needs to be done to protect pregnant women.
“In light of the Delta variant, as we know, is so much more contagious, we need to do more.”
Ms Hehir said that despite guidance from the Department of Education on reducing risks, there is alarm at some aspects of the revised Covid-19 Response Plan for Schools and concern over contradictory approaches to risk.
“Women still cannot have their partners with them in some hospital situations, but they’re told they’re safe to be in front of 30 unvaccinated students,” she said.
“I can’t understand why the protection in schools is different. It’s not like this time last year because the Delta variant is so much more transmissible. While the vaccination programme has been great, there will be unvaccinated students in the secondary school sector, that’s before you get to primary school where the vast majority will be unvaccinated. We’ve been told that the peak of the Delta wave hasn’t hit yet and I can guarantee that when education re-opens, the cases will begin to rise.”
The Clare TUI Chairperson outlined the different risks across the various education settings.
“Being in front of unvaccinated students is a very risky situation for anyone who cannot be vaccinated,” Ms Hehir said.
“In primary school, the teacher is spending long periods of time with pupils who may not be able to socially distance. In secondary schools, the teacher is moving from one cohort to another. In cases where teachers work with children with special needs, there are even higher risks.”
As regards the educational impact of having some teachers working remotely, Ms Hehir insisted this would be minimal. “The number of unvaccinated pregnant teachers is a small one,” she said.
“Remote teaching is now well established and most teachers have become used to joining classes from home for live teaching sessions.
“The practice of accepting and returning work online works well. In most cases, these arrangements would only be in place until the teacher is fully immunised. This is certainly not a situation where teachers are simply looking for time off.”
Meanwhile, at a public health briefing last week, heated discussions took place between members of the primary teachers’ union, the INTO, in respect of unvaccinated teachers and immunocompromised staff not eligible for vaccination.
INTO General Secretary John Boyle urged the Department to facilitate remote working for those teachers.
“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,” he said.
“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.”
Figures release earlier this month show that pregnant women account for 9.5% of Covid-positive patients in ICU since the end of June.

by Fiona McGarry

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