Covid-19: Closed schools mount pressures on frontline staff 

Medical staff cannot work from home, making homeschooling impossible without paying for childminders.
Covid-19: Closed schools mount pressures on frontline staff 

Dr Niamh O'Brien with her family, daughters Lucy, Orla, Annie and her husband Cuan MacConnell.

Medics and healthcare workers on the frontline of the fight against Covid-19 are struggling under increasing pressure due to the continued school closures.

While learning is taking place remotely, many frontline medical staff cannot work from home, meaning childminders must be found and paid for.

Those who can work from home are trying to combine working with homeschooling their children, especially if they are young.

The issue is greatly exacerbated for those who have children with additional needs, where remote learning may not work.

Dr Sarah Fitzgibbon is a GP based in Medigroup on the Cathedral Road in Cork city and founder of the Women in Medicine in Ireland Network (WiMIN). She says approximately 80% of Irish healthcare workers are female and this issue is affecting them disproportionately.

"Where both parents are essential workers... more often than not it is the woman who alters her work schedule, or in some cases leaves the workplace altogether, in order to meet the childcare needs of the family."

Dr Fitzgibbon says many GPs have had to switch to remote working for infection prevention and control reasons, or because they are isolating or restricting their movements.

"This can result in a level of multi-tasking that is unsustainable. Trying to carry out safe and clinically-sound telephone consultations while corralling needy, hungry children is a challenge for many WiMIN members. My own children are very familiar with being "shushed" out of the room frantically while I am on a call with a patient who needs help."

Dr Niamh O'Brien, a GP based in Mervue in Galway city, has three children. She has a busy patient workload as a GP and she also works with the HSE West drug service, which caters to vulnerable patients with addiction issues.

Her eldest daughter Orla is in third year of secondary school and can learn remotely without assistance.

Her 13-year-old, Lucy, has osteogenesis imperfecta (OI), or brittle bone disease. 

"She doesn't have a full-time SNA at home. She's able to engage with online learning, but at school, her SNA would help her with her seating at her desk, her books. Lucy uses a wheelchair and weighs 18 kilos and is 90 cm tall, her arms and legs would be shorter than average, so she needs support."

Dr O'Brien is paying for someone to help Lucy. "I've different minders that I have cobbled together. But there's no provision for SNAs to come out to the home. In my opinion, SNAs should be able to bubble with one or two families. We need practical support, for her own safety. If Lucy falls she's at risk of a fracture."

Dr O'Brien's youngest daughter, Annie, is six and has autism. Her special school has closed, though there are now plans to open them on a phased basis from Thursday. She said their closure was a big blow. 

"I am an essential worker and I feel that special schools are an essential service so should be open."

She is paying another minder to make sure Annie stays safe, but she cannot engage in virtual classes. "She can't go on Zoom. I am getting a certain amount of respite from the Brothers of Charity, but they are having to distribute their respite hours among more families, and families are burning out."

Dr O'Brien says there are special schools who would be willing to open at a reduced capacity, and staff in these schools should be prioritised for vaccinations to ensure they can reopen.

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