Back to school: ‘Seriously ill SNA told return to work’

Back to school: ‘Seriously ill SNA told return to work’

Andy Pike, head of education at the Fórsa trade union, says the SNA’s doctors are ‘astounded’ she has been told to return to work.

A special needs assistant (SNA) who is receiving dialysis for end-stage renal disease is among a number of school staff with serious health conditions told to return to classrooms, it has been claimed

The SNA is “very alarmed and very upset”, according to Andy Pike, the head of education at Fórsa, the union that represents SNAs.

“She attends dialysis three times a week, and is on a range of medication to keep her on the straight and narrow health-wise,” he said.

“She can attend work under normal circumstances, but her GP and consultant are astounded that she has been told by the occupational health service that she has to attend work.” 

The union is concerned that standard occupational health advice gives “insufficient protection” against Covid-19 to classroom-based staff with underlying health problems.

SNAs can’t practise social distancing, and do their job because they work so closely with the students they give personal care to, according to Mr Pike.

We now have up to 30 instances where there are staff with quite serious conditions, most of them with consultant opinion that they are at very high risk, all being told they can attend.

Today, Fórsa is to refer the issue to the Workplace Relations Commission for conciliation, with a view to progressing it to the Labour Court if a resolution is not found. “It’s not something we are going to let rest,” Mr Pike said.

Teaching unions have also expressed concerns regarding the arrangements for 'high-risk' teachers. The Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO) said it is aware of a number of teachers who have underlying conditions that have been advised to return to school. 

The union has called on the Government to intervene so that these teachers can appeal decisions in a timely manner, and have the opinion of their treating doctors fully taken into account. 

The Association of Secondary Teachers' Ireland (ASTI) has also sought the intervention of Stephen Donnelly, the health minister, after its request to meet with the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) was declined. The union sought a meeting to discuss a review of the public health advice around schools, according to Kieran Christie, ASTI general secretary. 

It is concerned over plans for at-risk teachers, but also has a number of questions around measures in schools. “There are even simple questions like why did they not recommend perspex for instance,” he added. 

When asked if this is something the union members will take action over, Mr Christie said: “We will wait and see. In terms of the HPSC, our objective would be to persuade them to review their guidance.”

A spokesman for the Department of Education said the safety of students and staff has been paramount during discussions around the return to school.

The process adopted for assessing which risk category a staff member is in line with other areas of public sector including the health sector, he added.

HSE guidelines say that staff in the higher risk category can attend the workplace with appropriate social distancing and hygiene measures, or with PPE where social distancing is problematic.

Where concerns remain about the risk categorisation, the occupational health service will arrange a review by an internal team to ensure the outcome is consistent with public health guidelines, he added.

A spokesman for the Department of Education said the safety of students and staff has been paramount during discussions around the return to school.

The process adopted for assessing which risk category a staff member is in line with other areas of public sector including the health sector, he added.

HSE guidelines say that staff in the higher risk category can attend the workplace with appropriate social distancing and hygiene measures, or with PPE where social distancing is problematic.

Where concerns remain about the risk categorisation, the occupational health service will arrange a review by an internal team to ensure the outcome is consistent with public health guidelines, he added.

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