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Covid-19 Pandemic

Dáil Éireann Debate, Wednesday - 3 March 2021

Wednesday, 3 March 2021

Questions (513)

Claire Kerrane

Question:

513. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Education if she will provide further information on the scheduled reopening of schools particularly with regard to supports and advice for high-risk staff and ventilation within school buildings; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [12061/21]

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Written answers (Question to Education)

The general principles to apply to the management of COVID-19 includes the safety and welfare of teachers and special needs assistants (SNAs) 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.

My Department has an enhanced Occupational Health Service (OHS) in place, to provide employers with occupational health advice in relation to teacher/SNAs’ fitness for work. The current OHS provider has a process in place for school staff with health concerns about their risk of serious illness from contracting COVID-19, through workplace attendance.

A detailed on-line questionnaire is submitted by the teacher/SNA 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 a teacher/SNA suffers from more than one health condition. The risk categorisation is comprehensive and follows the same process that is being applied across other sectors. A teacher/SNA is categorised into one of three COVID-19 risk categories. These are ‘Normal Risk’, High Risk’, and ‘Very High Risk’. The outcome of the risk categorisation is governed by the HSE guidance. My Department is following the same guidance that is in use across the public sector.

Where a teacher/SNA considers the OHS "Covid-19 Health Risk Categorisation report" places him/her in an incorrect risk category, he/she may request review. The teacher/SNA may provide additional medical evidence as part of the review process.

Based on HSE advice, a teacher/SNA categorised by the OHS as ‘Very High Risk’ must not attend the workplace. However he/she remains available for work and the employer should prioritise alternative working arrangements to the maximum extent possible e.g. working from home.

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.

During the current period of partial re-opening of schools, an employer should temporarily facilitate more flexible working arrangements where a teacher/SNA has been categorised by the OHS as ‘High Risk’. A teacher/SNA who is over 60 years of age should also be temporarily facilitated by these arrangements. This may include re-assignment of a teacher/SNA to other duties within the school or facilitated to work remotely i.e. working from home.

The HSE has recently published guidance for the education sector in respect of pregnant employees. Upon the full re-opening of schools, this HSE guidance will be implemented in the education sector. The Department will provide employers with details of these new arrangements in advance of a full re-opening of schools. In the meantime, during this period of partial re-opening of schools, a pregnant teacher/SNA should consider themselves in the ‘High Risk’ category and she should temporarily continue to work remotely i.e. working from home.

These temporary arrangements for teachers and SNAs are outlined in my Department’s Information Note 0005/2021 for primary teachers, Information Note 0006/2021 for primary SNAs, Information Note 0007/2021 for post primary teachers and Information Note 0008/2021 for post primary SNAs.

Schools have put in place significant mitigation measures to reduce the risk of coronavirus within the school environment. Minor works funding of €160m has been put in place to support these measures. Practical steps for the deployment of good ventilation practices was provided to the school system in the context of re-opening for September 2020. This guidance was reviewed and updated on 30 November.

In summary, the overall approach for schools should be to have windows open as fully as possible when classrooms are not in use (e.g. during break-times or lunch-times (assuming not in use) and also at the end of each school day) and partially open when classrooms are in use. It is worth noting that windows do not need to be open as wide in windy/colder weather in order to achieve the same level of airflow into the classroom. This will assist in managing comfort levels in classrooms. Managing comfort levels will be easier for schools now than during the winter period.

In updating the guidance in November, my Department’s Planning and Building Unit reviewed the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) guidance that consideration be given to installing an indoor air quality monitor in classrooms. The updated guidance sets out that in the main windows are likely to be required to be open at a frequency and level in the classroom irrespective of whether the opening of windows is prompted through the indoor air quality monitor (re-active approach) or through the pro-active approach outlined in my Department’s guidance and that therefore it is not considered necessary to install such monitors in classrooms. However, the updated guidance indicates that it is a matter for individual schools to consider whether they wish to use some of their minor works grant funding for this purpose or alternatively schools may wish to use some of their minor works grant funding for provision of permanent background ventilation, where required, as referenced in the guidance.

This guidance is one of a number of prevention and control measures in place to ensure schools are very safe.

An expert group on ventilation has recently been formed to advise the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) across a range of settings. The work of this group will help guide whether any further update on my Department’s guidance is required.

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