The new school term gets off to an uncertain start on Monday as unions and the Government remain on a collision course over when teachers will be vaccinated.
he annual teacher union conferences ended yesterday with all three supporting the idea of industrial action if teachers are not reinstated as a priority group for vaccination.
All 930,000-plus pupils are due to return on Monday, April 12, with first- to fourth-year classes in second-level schools back for the first time since Christmas.
Unions are giving the Government until the summer break to put teachers back on the vaccine priority list, but if they don’t get a clear signal of intent well before that, the possibility of strike action next term remains on the table.
Education Minister Norma Foley addressed her second teacher conference in two days yesterday, holding firm against a reversal of last week’s government decision to drop teachers’ priority listing.
Previously they were in the top 30pc of the population to be vaccinated, but the Government accepted the advice of the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (NIAC) to change to an age-based
The motion adopted at the conferences demands the reinstatement of education staff as a priority group because their work requires them to be in daily contact with a large number of people from a large number of households.
It also noted that social distancing is problematic and not assured given the crowded nature, structure and layout of their workplaces.
Within the overall cohort of education staff, unions say pregnant teachers, those in higher-risk categories and those who work in special schools, special classes and home school community liaison teachers should get earlier vaccinations.
If the Government does not agree to schedule vaccinations by the end of the current school year, based on their demands, the conferences agreed to ballot members for industrial action, up to and including strike action.
While the motion allows until the summer break for a schedule, a union source said if the Government showed no intent to meet their demands, the possibility of strike action next term was “not off the table”.
The Association of Secondary Teachers’ Ireland (ASTI) voted 4:1 in favour of the motion, the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO), which debated in private, carried it by an “overwhelming majority”, and the Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI) conference also supported it.
The immediate focus of the unions will be to seek to engage with the Department of Education on the matter.
In her address to the TUI conference, defending the change to a schedule based on age, the minister said older people were more at risk of serious disease and death. Unions argue their members have greater risk of exposure to the disease.
The minister said when NIAC made its initial recommendations in December, it was considered that a person’s occupation was a significant factor in determining their risk level in terms of Covid-19.
“New national and international evidence, however, now confirms that age is the single ‘strongest predictor’ of whether a person who contracts Covid-19 will be admitted to hospital or ICU or die as a result of their infection.”
She said the decision was based on science and was not a value judgment on any profession.
Earlier, on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Ms Foley said work was under way on setting out a schedule for vaccination based on age and it should be available in the coming days.
TUI vice president Liz Farrell said the age-based vaccine roll-out “isn’t about the science, it’s about what’s easiest”.
“Only after all the vulnerable have been catered for should teachers become part of a parallel process for vaccination,” Ms Farrell said.
At the ASTI conference, general secretary Kieran Christie said teachers and other school staff were frontline workers and it was “reprehensible that this change was made without consultation with us and our fellow trade union colleagues”.
Mr Christie said Ms Foley’s reaction to not holding talks with unions was not normal.
He said it was “bizarre that the minister’s defence in that regard seems to be that she found out about it as she sat down at the Cabinet table to make the decision”.
Source: Irish News