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'I can't sleep at night': Pregnant teachers fear going back to school before they're vaccinated

Pregnant people cannot register for a Covid-19 vaccine prior to 14 weeks’ gestation.

File photo of a classroom
File photo of a classroom
Image: Shutterstock/wavebreakmedia

UNIONS HAVE EXPRESSED concerns about pregnant teachers and special needs assistants (SNAs) returning to school later this month prior to them being fully vaccinated against Covid-19.

Some pregnant teachers and SNAs are considering taking unpaid sick leave from work until they are fully vaccinated against the virus.

In Ireland, pregnant people can’t register to get the Covid-19 vaccine until they are at least 14 weeks’ pregnant.

The HSE recommends waiting until this time as a precaution “to avoid any possible association with a miscarriage”.

“Some women may get their vaccine without knowing that they are pregnant. If you become pregnant following the first dose, wait until 14 weeks or after to get the second dose,” the HSE guidance notes.

Pregnant people do not typically take part in vaccine trials so there is currently a lack of data on the side effects among this group. However, the HSE has stated: “There is no evidence that any Covid-19 vaccine will harm your baby.”

One pregnant teacher who is due to return to work in a primary school in the coming weeks said she “cannot sleep at night” with worry.

“I am constantly stressed and anxious about the return to school. I am due to get my vaccine in two weeks time which means I will not be fully vaccinated before school reopens,” Áine* told The Journal.

“I am going into a classroom with 30-plus senior infant students. These students are unvaccinated and have no comprehension of social distancing, which is also not a requirement in the younger classes.

“There are children with severe needs in my class and I have no option but to be in contact with these students.”

Áine noted that her partner, who is fully vaccinated, cannot attend hospital appointments with her “because they are saying that pregnant women are extremely vulnerable”.

“However, it appears that I am safe in a classroom full of unvaccinated students who cannot socially distance or wear masks.”

Áine said she is very concerned about the recent rise in daily Covid-19 cases and the ongoing impact of the Delta variant. She also noted that keeping classrooms well ventilated will be more difficult in the colder winter months as windows will often need to be closed.

I cannot cope with the constant stress, anxiety and worry of school reopening. After being in school for the entire year last year, I can attest to how unsafe it is. I am at the end of my tether and have no options left.

“After a summer of not being able to meet loved ones to tell them my good news for the sake of staying safe and following government advice, I am being forced into an unsafe situation in my workplace.

“I am simply trying to protect my own health and the health of my unborn baby. I am being denied this right. It is terrifying in what already is a very stressful time,” she stated.

‘High-risk pregnancies’

A recent circular from the Department of Education states the following: “All pregnant employees up to 14 weeks gestation should attend the workplace unless they are categorised as ‘Very High Risk’.

“For a non-Covid-19 related high-risk pregnancy, where you are medically unfit for work, the terms and conditions of the Sick Leave Scheme will apply.”

Áine said this stance doesn’t take a person’s vaccine status into consideration and contradicts a circular released in June which stated that all high-risk and pregnant teachers should work from home.

A spokesperson for the department said they “engaged with all education partners, including trade unions” when drafting the updated circular.

They told The Journal that the HSE guidance for the education sector confirms that pregnant employees “can safely attend the workplace in school where all the infection prevention and control measures are in place by implementation of the School Covid-19 Response Plan”.

“This is the case whether or not the pregnant employee has been vaccinated. However, all pregnant employees should apply to the Occupational Health Service before the end of their first trimester, so that their individual medical circumstances can be assessed in the context of Covid-19.

“Those with underlying medical conditions may be categorised as very high risk and be facilitated to work remotely i.e. work from home. For pregnant teachers and special needs assistants working in special education settings, they may in certain circumstances be exposed to a higher risk of contracting Covid-19 and may be facilitated to work outside of the special education classroom.”

The spokesperson added that the evidence available “shows that schools are low-risk environments, due to the infection prevention and control measures in place”.

‘Strong representations’

A number of unions representing teachers and SNAs told The Journal that concerns similar to those raised by Áine have been flagged by their members.

A spokesperson for the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) said the union has “expressed concerns to the Department of Education regarding the arrangements for certain staff members who have not been given the opportunity to register for vaccination.

“This includes those in early pregnancy and those who are immunosuppressed. This has understandably caused anxiety for some of our members.”

The spokesperson said the union has urged the departments of education and health to “highlight the public health advice which has informed the recent circular “in order to provide reassurance to teachers who have not yet had the opportunity to register for vaccination”.

“We are advising any pregnant member who has specific concerns to contact their GP/doctor and to follow their advice,” they added.

A spokesperson for the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) said the organisation “has a particular concern over the return to workplaces of those teachers for whom the timing of their pregnancy precludes them from being vaccinated, as they have been advised that they should not receive a vaccine until they are at least 14 weeks pregnant”.

“We have made strong representations to the Department in relation to this issue and will continue to do so.”

A number of teachers have also raised concerns with the Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland (ASTI).

A union spokesperson said: “We have repeatedly raised these very real concerns with the Department of Education. The ASTI is conscious that, in the context of the prevalence of the Delta variant and the incomplete roll out of the vaccination programme, many pregnant teachers are concerned.”

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Special education settings

The department’s circular states the following about pregnant staff members who work in a special education setting:

“In a special education class in a mainstream school, your employer will re-assign you to an alternative role within the school. An existing employee within the school will then be re-assigned to the special education class.

“In a special education setting in a special education school, the employer will re-assign you to an appropriate role outside of this special education setting (classroom). An existing employee within the school will then be re-assigned to the special education class. Where this re-assignment is not possible, the employer must facilitate alternative working arrangements for you during this period i.e. work from home.”

A spokesperson for Fórsa trade union, which represents thousands of SNAs across the country, said it is in “ongoing engagement” with the Department of Education on the matter.

In a statement sent to its members, Fórsa noted: “The advice for pregnant staff has changed and, based on new expert opinion, SNAs can attend work during the first 14 weeks if their pregnancy risk assessment allows – for example, if they do not have any serious underlying health conditions as defined by the HSE.

“The previous advice on pregnant SNAs working outside of special settings remains in place from 14 weeks. Therefore, after the 14th week of pregnancy pregnant SNAs cannot work in special schools, classes or units, and they should not be working in settings with three or more adults (as was the case during the last school year).

“Staff in those settings will be either re-assigned to mainstream classes or assigned to work remotely. A full pregnancy risk assessment must be carried out for all pregnant staff taking account of their individual circumstances.”

*Name changed at interviewee’s request

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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