Thursday, 19 November 2020
Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions
Bríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
I want to talk about teachers, schools and whether schools should remain closed or open. There is a bit of a war on teachers, both in elements of the media and in some of the political statements being made. It is as if teachers are being told that the schools are safe, and that they should get over themselves, go in and do their work. There is considerable worry among teachers, however. I raised with the Tánaiste recently the question of the forgotten families, the hundreds of children who stay at home because they have vulnerable siblings or parents.
Another very worrying point was brought to my attention yesterday in an email I received from a primary school teacher:
I am 28 weeks pregnant and have been advised by my doctor to go on Health and Safety Leave as I am unable to social distance [at school]. My doctor is getting this advice from The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, The Royal College of Midwives and the Faculty of Occupational Medicine. In their produced document they state that women who are 28 weeks pregnant and beyond are at an increased risk of becoming severely ill should you contract COVID 19 [or, indeed, any other virus]. Therefore the clinical advice given is ... particularly important for ... women who are 28 weeks and beyond ....
However I was denied Health and Safety Leave by Medmark (Occupational Health Care for teachers) [a private company engaged by the HSE] as they state they are taking their advice from the HSE.
Why is the HSE advising against the professional advice of these organisations? Will the Tánaiste - the future and former Taoiseach - consider the circumstances of the very vulnerable who are at risk of contracting viruses and becoming seriously ill as a result? Will he try to get the HSE advice changed in line with best practice?
I started by saying there is a war on teachers. I believe that is absolutely true but there also considerable worry among teachers, principals and others over the circumstances in their schools. In the first instance, the definition of a close contact is very different for schools than it is for the rest of society. We are constantly being told that schools are safe and that teachers should go in, work and keep them open. We all want to keep schools open but we need to keep them open safely. They are not magical places and the staff cannot do it all by themselves. Yesterday, when Deputy Boyd Barrett raised this issue, the Taoiseach asked him to look to Denmark. We would love to be like Denmark, which has a pupil-teacher ratio of about 10:1. Ours is one of the highest in the European Union. Also, some 80% of our schools are not properly ventilated and we do not have the ability to socially distance. Therefore, this is a major issue. We need to calm down on the attack on teachers because it is not just a matter of teachers but also of parents and the children I mentioned. I would like the Tánaiste to address those issues.