Fórsa issued the following public statement this evening (Friday 7th August 2020):
“Fórsa has welcomed new official public health advice, published today (Friday), which says school staff must wear medical-grade face masks or visors when they are in close contact with students when primary and post-primary schools re-open this month.
The union says the guidelines, from the HSE’s Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC), are a welcome development that will maximise the Covid-19 protections for staff like special needs assistants (SNAs) who, unlike most teachers, will be unable to maintain social distancing.
Fórsa also said new HPSC advice that all secondary school students should wear cloth face coverings would also help make the return to school as safe as possible. But it said this would not include students with special educational needs, or those with breathing difficulties, and that this underlined the need for SNAs to use full PPE when working with these students.
Fórsa has also secured guidance for SNAs on infection control measures, which will be necessary to ensure they can work safely, particularly when carrying out personal or intimate care. It said the measures, which were straightforward, would be set out for SNAs in guidance before schools reopened.
Safety advice – including on working safely while using PPE and meeting the needs of students with special needs – will also be given to staff working on school transport services like bus escorts.
Fórsa welcomes the new and proactive attitude to the use of face masks and visors as a significant improvement on the earlier Government response, which sought to avoid the use of PPE in schools. The union sought and received confirmation that schools will be able to draw down and purchase adequate stocks of N75 face masks, which protect against the contraction of Covid-19.
SNAs will also be advised on the measures necessary to minimise risk when moving between different ‘pods’ of students in primary schools.
Fórsa has been in discussions with the education department on procedures to address the risks to staff with underlying health conditions since last week’s publication of the Government’s roadmap on the re-opening of schools. An official circular, due to be issued by the department this evening (7th August), will establish an identical occupational health assessment process for staff in ‘very high risk’ and ‘high risk’ categories. This reflects an agreement reached today after lengthy exchanges between Fórsa and the education department over the past week.
As a result, SNAs and other staff who are concerned that they have an underlying health condition will be able to easily access an occupational health assessment process to determine if it’s safe for them to attend work. If not, they will be able to work remotely. Fórsa said this was the same process used for HSE staff, and it is proven to work effectively to ensure that staff at a very high risk and high risk are protected from contracting Covid-19.
The union said agreement had also been reached on measures affecting school secretaries and caretakers, who will be able to access the same occupational health services as teachers and SNAs. A separate departmental circular will issue to say how schools will be funded to make this provision.
Agreement has also been reached on the issue of installing screens at school reception desks to protect school secretaries. Similar screening has been installed across the public service, and secretaries will now be able to work with this additional protection. Schools will be advised to use their minor works grant for this purpose.
Further advice on the occupational health assessment process and other protective measures will be issued by Fórsa to members next week, after the relevant circulars have been published.”