Thursday, 21 January 2021

Questions (180)

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

180. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Education if Medmark is adjudicating for special needs assistants, SNAs, and special education needs, SEN, teachers in the same manner as mainstream class teachers, given that they cannot social distance from their students unlike their mainstream class colleagues; if a list will be provided of the conditions that put SNAs and SEN and class teachers in the high-risk category or categories; and if they will be exempted from returning to school; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [3085/21]

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Written answers (Question to Education)

My Department has an enhanced Occupational Health Service (OHS) in place to provide employers with occupational health advice in relation to employees’ fitness for work. Medmark, the current OHS provider has a process in place for school staff, including SNAs and SEN teachers, who may have health concerns about their risk of serious illness from contracting COVID-19 through workplace attendance.

A detailed on-line questionnaire is submitted by the employee to the OHS, along with detailed medical evidence to provide clarity with respect to the medical complaint(s) in question. All of this information is reviewed by the OHS specialist occupational health physician, including the combined and cumulative risk that can arise when an employee suffers from more than one health condition. The risk categorisation is comprehensive and follows the same process that is being applied across other sectors. An employee is categorised into one of three COVID-19 risk categories. These are general population risk, high risk, and very high risk. The outcome of the risk categorisation is governed by HSE guidance.

Where an employee considers the OHS ‘COVID-19 Health Risk Categorisation Report’ places him/her in an incorrect risk category, they can request a review where Medmark will re-evaluate the medical evidence provided. The employee may provide additional medical evidence as part of the review process. In the event of a review or update of the current HSE advice, Medmark will be informed, as the occupational health service provider, by the HSE, and will adjust their decision making processes accordingly.

The HSE advice on the ‘high risk’ group is at: https://www2.hse.ie/conditions/coronavirus/people-at-higher-risk.html. In accordance with HSE advice, an employee in the ‘high risk’ group who is not ill must attend the workplace. The employee in the ‘high risk’ group should take extra care to practice social distancing and hand hygiene. The use of face coverings and personal protective equipment may also be considered where maintaining social distancing is difficult.

The HSE advice on the very high risk is at: https://www2.hse.ie/conditions/coronavirus/people-at-higher-risk.html. The ‘very high risk’ group is currently advised to cocoon. An employee categorised by Medmark as at a very high risk of serious illness from contracting COVID-19 must be facilitated by his/her employer to work from home.

The general principles to apply to the management of COVID-19 includes the safety and welfare of employees and the minimisation of the impact of COVID-19 on teaching and learning. The current COVID-19 arrangements in place for teachers and SNAs are outlined in my Department’s Circular Letter 0049/2020.

The Government published the ‘Work Safely Protocol’ on 20th November 2020, to replace the ‘Return to Work Safely’ Protocol. It incorporates the current advice on the Public Health measures needed to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace as issued by National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET), the Department of Health and Government. It sets out the minimum measures required in every place of work to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and ongoing safe operation of those workplaces. The main updated Public Health advice includes information on the management and control of outbreaks, selection of hand sanitisers, wearing of masks, ventilation of workplaces.

As part of the Protocol, all employers are required to have a COVID-19 Response Plan in place and must ensure it is kept up to date. The plan outlines the arrangements in place to ensure a safe workplace for all employees. Those employees deemed ‘high risk’ and ‘normal risk’ can attend the workplace safely where the school is implementing the COVID-19 Response Plan and the health advice for schools. There is an obligation on the employer to discuss the COVID-19 Response Plan with the employee and ensure that all appropriate risk mitigation measures are in place for the protection of employees in the school.

The employer has a responsibility to assess the school environment using the COVID-19 Response Plan for the school, to ensure that all the appropriate HSE recommendations for safe school operations during Covid-19 are being implemented in full.

The Health Protection Surveillance Centre issued advice in respect of SNAs, which sets out clearly how a safe working environment can be maintained for SNAs in schools - ‘Guidance for Schools regarding Special Needs Assistants (SNAs) supporting children and young people with additional care needs in the context of COVID-19'.

Every school has at least 1 Lead Worker Representative whose role is to represent staff and who may consult with, and make representations to, school management on any issue of concern in relation to COVID-19, including issues relating to at risk groups.