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'It's a huge risk': Pregnant teaching staff say they've been left in the dark over the return of schools

Many teachers complain they’ve received little guidance or assurances about how pregnant staff will be looked after.

A hand sanitising station in a school.
A hand sanitising station in a school.
Image: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

PREGNANT STAFF HAVE expressed confusion, alarm and worry about returning to school with few precautions or specific guidance as cases of Covid-19 remain high. 

TheJournal.ie spoke to several teaching staff, who all said that they’d been told little, if any, about the protocols in place for vulnerable staff and felt scared to go back and face the risk of catching the coronavirus. 

With the vast majority of schools set to be returned by the end of next week, pregnant staff say they’ve been offered no guidance from either the Department of Education or their own schools. 

HSE guidance states that “we are still learning about coronavirus”.

“We don’t fully know how it affects pregnant women and their babies,” the advice on the agency’s website states. 

“The information we have so far shows that pregnant women are not at-risk. This means that if you are healthy, you do not have a higher risk of serious illness if you catch coronavirus while pregnant.”

A circular from the Department of Education, released at the start of the month, reiterates this: “Under the current HSE guidelines, a pregnant employee is not deemed to be at very high risk of serious illness from contracting Covid-19, unless suffering from a serious heart condition.”

However, there is evidence of some discrepancy between the guidance issued to pregnant teachers and pregnant healthcare workers. 

The latest guidance for HSE staff, published on 20 July, states that “pregnant health care workers should be allocated to patients, and duties, that have reduced exposure to patients with, or suspected to have, Covid-19 infection”. 

“It is specifically recommended to avoid rostering pregnant staff to Covid-specific units or wards, and redeployment to lower risk duties should be considered.”

But pregnant teachers have received no such guidance or information. 

“You’re being left to your own devices. There is no guidance. I’ve looked and I’ve read and there’s nothing at all,” said a senior infants teacher in Kilkenny, who didn’t want to be named.

“No one wants to get it, knowing that you’re pregnant,” she said. “It’s a huge risk to take.”

“While we’re being told that pregnant women aren’t at risk, nobody really knows.”

She was also worried about the strain managing her class will put on her, between trying to keep young children socially distanced and cleaning surfaces. “You’re kind of at a stage when you’re battling fatigue anyway,” she said. 

Pregnant women, especially in the third trimester, can be particularly vulnerable to some respiratory infections – while women who become unwell in the later stages of pregnancy are generally more vulnerable.  

Another teacher, who didn’t want to be named, works in a national school in Limerick. Thirty-three weeks pregnant, her doctor had advised against returning to school and she’s instead taking sick leave. 

“We haven’t been given a huge amount of guidance, I feel. And wearing PPE and being pregnant isn’t hugely comfortable,” she said. 

She said that there weren’t any guidelines for anyone who was below “high risk”. 

The Department of Education’s approach to vulnerable teachers prompted anger this week from trade unions. 

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The Irish National Teachers Organisation expressed concern that teachers’ occupational health service, Medmark, had advised many vulnerable members to return to school. 

“As our members return to the front lines this week, urgent and swift action from government is now required to review existing public health guidance and ensure it remains fit for purpose,” General Secretary John Boyle said. 

Another pregnant woman, who’s an SNA in Limerick, is not returning to work. She said that the lack of guidance wasn’t new. Earlier this year, when she thought she could be redeployed to the HSE, said it was “very stressful”. 

“You weren’t on any vulnerable list,” she said. 

A spokesperson for the Department of Education said: “Pregnant women are not considered in the “at-risk” category by the HSE unless they have other underlying conditions that may put them at higher risk than others or in a very high risk category.”

“The safety and wellbeing of staff, students and the whole school community has been of paramount importance in planning for school reopening by the government,” the spokesperson added. 

“Where the education staff member is in the general population risk or higher risk category, current HSE guidelines are that this employee could attend the workplace with appropriate social distancing and hygiene measures.

“Where social distancing is problematic, for example due to the nature of the role,  working closely with others is possible providing that adequate controls,” the spokesperson said, “are effective in managing the risk.

“In this context, the school will discuss with the employee the School Covid-19 Response Plan, as this contains the risk assessment of the school and the measures that are being put in place to mitigate the risk posed by Covid-19,” the spokesperson said. 

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