The three leading teachers’ unions have condemned Minister for Education Norma Foley for failing to put in place contingency plans for staff who have been unable to get a Covid-19 vaccination.
Those in the early stages of pregnancy and certain cohorts with underlying health conditions are not currently eligible for a jab.
Ms Foley has insisted that expert advice shows it is safe for unvaccinated pregnant staff to return to work, but has said they can take sick leave if they are not comfortable doing so.
The Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI), the Association of Secondary Teachers, Ireland (ASTI) and the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) issued a joint statement on Wednesday, calling for staff to be allowed to work from home, and condemning the failure to put alternative work arrangements in place.
— ASTI (@astiunion) August 25, 2021
The statement said the “anxiety and fear” caused to pregnant women by the Minister’s failure to act is “unconscionable”.
It said: “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 unions said they had been assured that all of their members would be offered vaccinations before the next school year begins.
“While we acknowledge that the vast majority of our members have received vaccines in advance of schools reopening, we find it incredible that Government expects vulnerable members in the early stages of their pregnancy to return to school buildings without vaccine protection,” the statement said.
It added: “For the entirety of 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.
“We reiterate today our call 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.”
Public health advice recommends that pregnant women wait until 14 weeks to get a first dose of a vaccine, with a second dose before the end of 36 weeks.
Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland earlier on Wednesday, Ms Foley said her department has taken a “cautious” approach and sought expert medical advice from the Institute of Obstetrics and Gynaecology.
She said: “It is their expert recommendation that pregnant staff should return to school and avail of the vaccination at 14 weeks, that is their recommendation.
“But I do appreciate that every pregnancy, effectively, is an individual pregnancy.
“Where there are individual concerns, those concerns should be discussed with the GP or the consultant, and if it is their view that there was something unique or particular to that individual pregnancy, then of course the opportunity to avail of pregnancy-related sick leave remains.
“That has always been there and it continues to remain.”