A new Department of Education circular on ‘Coronavirus (COVID-19): Arrangements for teachers and special needs assistants (SNAs) employed in recognised primary and post-primary schools’ was published this afternoon (11th August).
Fórsa informed SNAs of the main changes for the coming school year a few weeks ago, when the last information note issued from the department. The new circular confirms those changes, which can be summarised as follows:
- The HSE advice on very high risk and high risk conditions has changed as a consequence of the vaccine roll out. Therefore some staff previously working remotely last year may now be asked to attend work in person subject to an occupational health assessment.
- SNAs unhappy with the occupational health assessment can request a review (or second opinion) as set out in paragraph 4.2.3. When requesting a review please note that it is necessary to include as much medical evidence as possible including reports from treating specialists as well as an opinion from your GP.
- 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. Fórsa sought a specific appendix on this in the document, and you can read it in appendix G. The previous advice on pregnant SNAs working outside of special education settings remains in place from 14 weeks. Therefore, after the 14th week of pregnancy, pregnant SNAs who are categorised as high risk by the Occupational Health Service, cannot work in special schools, special classes or units, which meet the criteria set out in paragraph 4.5.2 of the circular, as copied below*. Staff in those settings will be either reassigned 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.
- The HSE guidance on contact tracing and self-isolation for those with full vaccine protection has changed. This is reflected in the document, which takes account of the existence of the Covid-19Delta variant.
- There is no provision for principals to obtain general information on the vaccine status of all their staff. However, that information may be recorded if an SNA has to submit a written request for special leave with pay or other provisions after contracting Covid-19. This is because the HSE advice differs depending on the vaccine status of staff. Occupational health doctors are entitled to know the vaccine status of staff when conducting health assessments.
All existing health and safety measures, including the use of masks, are to continue next year. Schools will shortly receive carbon dioxide monitors to enable staff to measure the air quality in classrooms. They will be advised on the measures to be taken if the air quality falls below accepted standards. Further information on the new ventilation guidance will issue next week.
Fórsa and the teaching unions continue to meet education department officials and HSE public health experts on a weekly basis to review the situation in schools.
*Paragraph 4.5.2 of Circular 0042/2021 states:
4.5.2 A pregnant employee from 14 weeks gestation, who is categorised as ‘High Risk’ by the OHS, should subject to paragraph 4.5.3 below, not be required to work in an environment which meets the following criteria:
(a) A Special Education setting which means a special school or a dedicated special class within a mainstream primary or post primary school; with
(b) the presence of three or more employees in a single room, throughout the working day; and
(c) where social distancing between the employees in the special education setting is not consistently possible.