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Republic's education minister rejects work-from-home calls for unvaccinated pregnant teachers

Those in the early stages of pregnancy and certain cohorts with underlying health conditions are not currently eligible for a Covid-19 jab. Picture by David Jones/PA Wire
James Ward, PA

The education minister in the Republic has rejected calls from unions to allow unvaccinated pregnant teachers to work from home.

Those in the early stages of pregnancy and certain cohorts with underlying health conditions are not currently eligible for a Covid-19 jab.

Minister Norma Foley has said such staff should still attend classrooms or, alternatively, avail of pregnancy-related leave, saying the stance is based on public health advice to her department.

The Republic of Ireland’s three leading teachers’ unions issued a strongly worded statement today, condemning the minister and the department for this stance, and calling for staff to be given the option to work from home.

Responding, Ms Foley said: “We have consulted with the Institute of Obstetrics and Gynaecologists, we have consulted with public health, we have consulted with occupational health.

“It is their expert advice that staff who are pregnant, are eligible to return to work and then at 14 weeks they can be vaccinated.”

She said there may be cases where teachers consult with their GPs and conclude that it is not appropriate for them to return to work.

She added: “If that is the case, there is a pregnancy related leave and that has always been the case, it remains in place.”

Asked why the option of working from home was not being made available, the Minister replied: “Well, again, I’m going straight to the recommendation.

“We asked for the data to be reviewed, the data was reviewed by experts and it is their recommendation.

“This is not a personal recommendation from me or indeed from the Department of Education.”

She added: “We’re following the advice.

“No issue has been flagged.”

Asked if the expert group had taken on a view on teachers working from home, she said: “This is the view that has been expressed as regards return to work.”

The minister insisted that any teacher who availed of pregnancy-related leave would not see their entitlement to sick leave affected.

“There’s 183 days available.

“It does not impact going forward on any individual sick leave should they need to draw down in the future,” she said.

“There is a misconception in terms of sick leave, it does not impact on an individual’s eligibility for sick leave going forward.”

The minister clarified that, under department rules, for the first 90 days of pregnancy-related leave, staff will receive full pay, but for the following 90 days they receive half pay.

The Teachers’ Union of Ireland (Tui), the Association of Secondary Teachers, Ireland (Asti) and the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (Into) issued a joint statement on Wednesday, calling for staff to be allowed to work from home, and condemning the failure to put alternative work arrangements in place.

The statement said the “anxiety and fear” caused to pregnant women by the minister’s failure to act is “unconscionable”.

It said: “With increasing concern in respect of very high rates of community infection and growing unease about the transmissibility of the Delta variant being central to regular public health messages from Nphet, we are alarmed that this small cohort of the school workforce is being sent back to school settings prematurely, prior to getting the opportunity to achieve significant vaccine protection.”

The unions said they had been assured that all of their members would be offered vaccinations before the next school year begins.

“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,” the statement said.

“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.”

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