After a summer of reduced restrictions and rising incidence rates of Covid-19, children are returning to primary and secondary schools across the country as part of a full return to education.
The return comes as teachers and unions raise concerns about unvaccinated pregnant teachers being required to go back into the classroom.
Data has revealed that almost one in ten patients in Intensive Care Units in Irish hospitals are pregnant women.
The three teachers’ unions say they are “alarmed” that this small cohort of the school workforce is being sent back to schools prior to getting the opportunity to achieve significant vaccine protection.
The Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO), the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI), and the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) reiterated their call for swift action to be taken to permit these workers to work from home and support pupils remotely.
In a joint statement, the unions said that three months ago, public health advisers assured education unions that all members would be offered vaccines before the next school year began.
“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.
“Over the last number of weeks, we have called on the Department of Education to engage with these workers directly and to provide short term relief, enabling them to work from home for a short period of time until they have the same opportunity as all other education workers to build up immunity against Covid-19.
“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.”
Minister for Education Norma Foley has defended her department’s position on pregnant teachers who are required to return to school even if they have not been vaccinated, saying the option of standard sick leave is available for any teachers who were not yet 14 weeks pregnant and so could not be vaccinated.
The department’s position was based on the advice of the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, she said.
Anyone with individual concerns should discuss them with their consultant, she added.
“It is the recommendation of the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists that all pregnant staff are eligible to return to work and then to take the vaccination at 14 weeks,” said the Education Minister.
It comes amid concerns about the prevalence of the Delta variant of Covid-19 and the high incidence rate of the virus within the community.
Despite this, restrictions remain the same as before the closure of schools for the summer after their phased return during the third lockdown.
Public health doctors monitoring outbreaks in schools have said this is largely due to the little change in close contact positivity — the number of close contacts who go on to test positive for Covid-19, between the first term of school, and the second last year.
An addition to the regulations is the introduction of carbon dioxide monitors to monitor air quality and circulation in schools, however, reports of schools struggling to acquire adequate monitors for their buildings are widespread.
In relation to C02 monitors in schools, Ms Foley said the recommendations from the review group involved in their introduction had indicated that monitors should be portable and shared among classrooms.
She said the monitors had been ordered three months ago, but there was a great demand internationally which meant that they were not delivered until this week and would be distributed to schools by the first week in September.
C02 monitors were an additional tool against Covid, she said.
When asked about antigen testing and rapid testing, Ms Foley told RTÉ's Morning Ireland that her department would follow public health advice and that a pilot programme had commenced in the childcare and third level sectors.
Once the pilot was evaluated, if it was recommended that antigen testing be used in schools then “we are open to it,” she said.
Testing of outbreaks in schools would remain a priority, as it had been last year, she said. “We are taking a cautious approach,” she added.
When asked about the wearing of masks by primary school children, she said such a measure was not recommended currently, but should that become the view "we will adapt and implement."