Wednesday, 14 October 2020

Ceisteanna (5)

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire


5. Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire asked the Minister for Education for details of the guidance for those at high risk; if schoolchildren who have medically vulnerable parents will be facilitated with remote learning; and if she will revise the Medmark process for high-risk school staff. [30314/20]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Education)

I read last week's guidance on remote learning. There were some issues with it, including the heavy reliance on special educational teachers. I was especially disappointed that the document continued to ignore any facilitation for children and staff who have high-risk parents at home and cannot attend school as a result. These parents have been asking for guidance for months. Some schools have acted of their own volition to put in place remote learning for these children but the Department continues to refrain from acting or giving guidance in writing. It is causing great anxiety.

The Department has published guidelines to support schools in making adapted education provision for those children who cannot return to school because they are medically certified as being at very high risk to Covid-19. The Health Protection Surveillance Centre and the HSE have published guidance on the return to school of at-risk groups. The advice confirms that the vast majority of children can return to school and it is important for the overall health and well-being of children to attend school. This guidance provides that children with immediate family members, including parents, in the high-risk and very high-risk categories can return to school and that this is important for the child's overall well-being. This is consistent with public health advice internationally on at-risk family members.

The best way to protect against Covid-19 is for households to continue to follow all current public health advice on how to minimise the risk of infection. This includes regular hand washing, cough etiquette and social distancing. It should be noted that the public health evidence regarding the initial return to school is positive and highlights that schools are relatively low-risk environments for Covid-19. This is confirmed on a regular basis.

My Department has in place an enhanced occupational health service, OHS. The current OHS provider is Medmark Occupational Healthcare Limited. Medmark has a process in place for school staff with health concerns about the risk to them of serious illness from contracting Covid-19 through workplace attendance. The risk categorisation is comprehensive and follows the same process that is being applied across other sectors.

To date, more than 1,700 teachers, SNAs and school staff have been accessed by Medmark under this scheme. A person who is not satisfied with the outcome of this process may apply to have the case reviewed by a further panel of medical experts. The Department has developed and prepared a comprehensive response to support the well-being of school communities. NEPS is working with schools to support them to meet the needs of their pupils, especially pupils who are anxious at this time.

When I raised this with the Minister previously many of these parents were anxious. Part of the difficulty here relates to how broad the high-risk category is. The very high-risk category is extreme and specific and obviously there are particular provisions for that category, but the high-risk category seems to take in everything from mild asthma to leukaemia. Many parents are highly vulnerable and their children are seriously concerned about them. The situation is even more grave now than it was at the time I first raised it with the Minister. Many families do not feel comfortable and do not believe they have adequate guidance. They do not feel heard.

Some of the issues relate to the evaluation of high risk. The Minister made reference to the guidance. Again, the guidance deals with children who are at high risk but there is nothing for those who have parents or close relatives with whom they are living who are at high risk.

I absolutely appreciate that this is an anxious time for everyone across all sectors of society. We must acknowledge as well that everything that can be done is being done, especially within our school environment. All the measures that need to be put in place within our schools have been put in place. The resources that were necessary have been put in place.

It is a tribute to the manner in which those aspects are being implemented by school communities throughout the country that we can say schools are safe places. This has been confirmed nationally and internationally.

I appreciate the categorisation of at risk and very high risk. That categorisation is implemented by Medmark. Medmark is following the same strategy or categorisation that has been implemented throughout the public service. We are no different within the school environment. It is best practice to follow what is being followed by others on the front line, including our nurses and doctors.

That brings me on to the latter part of my question relating to Medmark. There is increasing anxiety among school staff. I have raised with the Minister previously the fact that I believe there is a need for greater leadership and communication on the situation in schools. Schools may be relatively low-risk environments and children may be less likely to transmit the infection, but they are not without risk. School staff have significant concerns, especially those school staff who are at high risk.

The Minister mentioned Medmark and said that 1,200 or 1,300 school staff have undergone this process. One key issue raised by the representatives of school staff is the review process. Dr. Ronan Glynn said before the Covid-19 committee that there has to be an individual approach. A uniform approach will not work. Everyone's public health considerations are different. In how many cases has the initial decision by Medmark been overturned by the review panel? I told the Minister's office that I would raise this issue. Of the 1,200 cases referred to, how many went for review and how many took a contrary view after that review by the panel?

Deputy Ó Laoghaire is correct. It is only right and proper that there would be an opportunity for a review of any decision. That mechanism is in place. It is an independent review by medical experts. Individuals who wish to have their case reviewed have the opportunity for that and to provide, if they wish, updated or new medical evidence that may be assessed.

In the first instance, some 1,785 people applied to be considered within the process. A total of 913 were categorised as very high risk, 802 were classified as high risk and 70 were categorised as normal risk. A total of 327 applied for a review of the classification. Of that 327, some 16% were placed into different categories.

Again, the process that is being employed here is being employed across the public sector. We are no different within the education field. The classification has been applied to those who are on the front line, including nurses and doctors, etc.