Fórsa, which represents 11,000 special needs assistants (SNAs) nationwide, has begun to provide medical grade face masks to members in schools that have failed to provide them.
The union this week secured an initial supply of medical grade face masks after SNAs raised concerns about inadequate provision in their schools.
In a recent survey conducted by Fórsa, 22% of the 2,100 SNA respondents confirmed they hadn’t been provided with face coverings or masks that with meet the required standard.
Fórsa official Shane Lambert said it was not Fórsa’s responsibility to provide SNAs with appropriate PPE, but delays in a number of schools had forced the union’s hand.
“All of the available guidance is crystal clear, SNAs spend most of their day in close proximity to the children in their care.
They need to wear face masks, especially as the children in their care are not wearing any face covering. Any school that fails to provide the correct PPE is placing its own staff at considerable risk of Covid infection,” he said.
In October, the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) published advice for SNAs working in schools on how to protect against Covid-19 transmission, advising the correct PPE for SNAs is a surgical face mask (EN14683 standard) in instances where a two-metre social distance cannot be maintained. Shane said that, despite the clear guidance, too many SNAs have only been supplied with cloth masks.
“We cannot risk a situation where infection occurs while we wait for some schools to make adequate provision.
We are stepping in here because it’s become necessary, despite the fact that schools have been given the funding to provide the appropriate PPE. If it means shaming the Department of Education and Skills into action then so be it,” he said.
Shane added: “Aside from the delays in a number of schools, the failure of the Department of Education and Skills’ to make the wearing of face masks a requirement for those workers for whom two-metre social distancing is not possible, has forced us to act.
“Fórsa has this week implemented plans to distribute these masks directly to members who cannot access them in their own school. We must do all we can to ensure members can work as safely as possible,” he said.
The Government’s Roadmap for Reopening Schools document advises schools to consider the use of medical face masks in specific circumstances. Fórsa says the Department of Education and Skills has incorrectly interpreted this to refer only to situations where SNAs are providing intimate care needs.
More than 20% of respondents to the union’s survey confirmed that they’ve been asked to reuse PPE within their schools.
The Fórsa survey revealed that 24% of school staff have not been provided with any training on the appropriate use of PPE. This increases to 38% when those who say that they have not received adequate training are included.
Shane said Fórsa will continue to raise issues of social distancing and the need for adequate protection, including PPE, for high-risk staff with the recently-established forum involving education unions, representatives of the education department, the HSE, and its public health experts.
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