Two trade unions representing school workers have expressed concern that workers with underlying health conditions could be at unnecessary high risk when schools start to reopen this week.
The union representing Special Needs Assistants and school secretaries, Fórsa, says it is concerned that standard occupational health advice, and new guidance issued by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DPER), gives insufficient protections against Covid-19 to classroom-based staff with underlying health problems including lung and respiratory conditions, heart disease, and some cancers.
The union’s head of education, Andy Pike, said workers had been told they must work in classrooms without any social distancing, despite clear evidence that they are at high risk if they contract Covid-19.
“Staff are concerned that the occupational health advice doesn’t take account of individual health status and seems to allow people at high risk to work in situations without social distancing even if they have multiple underlying health conditions. We are seeking an alternative approach that is responsive to advice from GPs, rather than a blanket uniform approach which is insensitive to real health risks and fears,” he said.
The union says it has written to education minister Norma Foley to say that staff in the schools sector are most at risk, but are getting the least protection.
The union has asked the minister to reconsider the policy to “afford a genuine clinical assessment to staff that takes account of their health status in accordance with published HSE advice.”
It says that SNAs cannot practice social distancing and do their job because they work so closely with the students they give personal care to.
Meanwhile, teacher trade union the ASTI says it has written to the Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly TD asking him to intervene to secure a meeting between the union and the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) regarding the re-opening of schools for those in the “high risk” category.
The ASTI is receiving a significant number of calls from teachers whose illnesses include chronic kidney disease, cancer and serious heart disease and who are required to return to school.