Union concerned for safety of 'high risk' staff in schools

Union concerned for safety of 'high risk' staff in schools
Picture: P.J.Browne

A person with long-term lung disease, another on immunosuppressive therapy for severe rheumatoid arthritis, and someone with only one lung are among school staff members being instructed to attend work.

Fórsa, the union that represents special needs assistants (SNAs), school secretaries, and caretakers, claims members of the union are being instructed to return to schools when they are “clearly” particularly vulnerable should they contract Covid-19.

As previously reported by the Irish Examiner, an SNA who receives dialysis three times a week for end-stage renal disease is among a number of employees deemed fit to return to school after undergoing an occupational health assessment.

The assessments, carried out by Medmark on behalf of the Department of Education, say that those in the 'high-risk' category should attend work and use PPE. However, Fórsa says this deviates from published HSE health advice. 

Included in the staff members instructed to return are: 

  • An employee with Swyer James Syndrome, who has only one lung following a pneumonectomy;
  • An employee with long term Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD); 
  • An employee who is asthmatic and has experienced four bad recent asthma attacks in the school, resulting in her being taken to hospital or to the GP surgery. 

The union referred the issue to the Workplace Relations Commission yesterday following correspondence from education minister Norma Foley which said that classroom-based staff with underlying health problems, categorised as ‘high risk’, can now seek a second opinion if they are unhappy.

Andy Pike, Fórsa's head of education, said: “Unfortunately the provision of a second opinion will not change the outcome of the assessment process if the instructions remain the same, and is restricted solely to determining if an employee is at ‘very high risk’ or ‘high risk’ should they contract Covid-19.”

A spokesman for the Department of Education said safety 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 the public sector, including the health sector.

HSE guidelines say that staff in the 'high 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.

Meanwhile, some pupils or their parents may be experiencing anxiety about the return to school to such an extent that "their child does not return as expected", according to new guidelines on supporting very-high-risk primary school students who cannot return, issued by the Department of Education. It is not expected that pupils with Covid-related anxiety will be educated through the adapted provision.

More in this section