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COVID-19 Education Update: Key Employment Concerns as Schools Consider Re-Opening

27 May 2020

The Government, on 9 May, published a ‘Return to Work Safety Protocol’ which provides guidance to employers and workers on measures to be put in place to facilitate a return to work and to minimise the risk of a spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. Schools are workplaces and Boards of Management are by law the employers of the teachers and other staff employed in schools. While the Protocol does not deal with the re-opening of schools and while it will undoubtedly be followed by further directions from the Department of Education and Science, it does set out the broad parameters of what will be required of Boards of Management as employers when schools re-open.

The Protocol, which is subject to change, provides guidelines on measures that employers should take to ensure safety in the workplace. Unfortunately, however, it does not address the very specific and complex issues arising for school management regarding the safe re-opening of schools.

Steps for Boards of Management as employers

The Protocol outlines detailed steps for employers to take in order to reduce the risk of a spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. These can be broadly categorised as follows:

  • Developing / updating a COVID-19 response plan in accordance with COVID-19 specific risk. These include assessments of individual worker’s personal risk factors. Employers should appoint worker representatives to assist with implementing the plan and related measures, and to also monitor adherence to any of these measures. These worker representatives should receive relevant and necessary training by their employer. Schools will clearly be looking to the Department for direction on the preparation of the response plan and the training to be provided to teachers and other staff returning to school.

  • Developing and amending policies and procedures for prompt identification of suspected cases of COVID-19. Employers will be required to keep a log of contact / group work to facilitate contact tracing. This will give rise to additional work for teachers and school management as any contact with parents and other persons from outside of the school will have to be logged.

  • Updating current policies, such as absence policies, and communicating workplace changes, for example, agreeing any restructure of workplace practices and making public health advice available. Sick leave regulations are a matter for the Department. Absenteeism relating to COVID-19 concerns will have to be addressed by the Department. It has already issued circular letter, CL 0024/2020 which deals with special leave with pay for teachers who have contracted the virus and/or have been advised to self-isolate

  • Implementing COVID-19 prevention and control measures to minimise risks to workers. The Protocol emphasises the importance of regular cleaning of workplaces and sets out guidance on physical distancing measures. It also sets out guidance on the use of isolation areas and the use of Personal Protective Equipment. There is additional very helpful guidance available to employers from the NSAI here and from the Health & Safety Authority here.

  • The requirement for workers to follow public health advice, particularly in public facing roles. Failure to follow this advice in the employment context may become a disciplinary issue and it may be necessary for that to be clarified to all school staff on returning to work.

  • Occupational health and safety measures and recommendations such as putting in place mental health supports for workers who may be suffering from anxiety or stress, and updated training for first aid officers. Medmark may be able to provide some assistance with this.

Employer concerns on returning to work

Recommended measures set out in the Protocol include:

  • Organising workers into teams that are as small as is reasonably practicable who consistently work and take breaks together

  • Implementing a no hand shaking policy

  • Rearranging working and break areas

  • Allocating specific times for collections, appointments and deliveries, and

  • Conducting meetings as much as possible using online remote means

Where it is not possible to facilitate two metre worker separation by organisational means, the Protocol suggests measures such as installing physical barriers e.g. clear plastic sneeze guards between workers, providing hand hygiene aids and making face masks available to workers once it is consistent with Public Health advice.

Currently, the HSE only recommends that face masks are worn by symptomatic individuals to reduce the risk of transmitting the infection to other people. Face masks are not recommended for people working with the general public who are feeling well and do not have respiratory symptoms associated with COVID-19. Unless this guidance changes, it will be difficult for employers to enforce the wearing of face masks in the workplace. As with all protective wear, should face masks be introduced to the workplace, workers should be properly trained in how to wear and to dispose of face masks.

How any of this might be implemented in schools in the context of curriculum delivery and the supervision of students has yet to be addressed. However, these are the recommended practices.

Virus transmission

As well as emphasising the importance of cleaning and including guidelines on how to respond to a suspected case of COVID-19, the Protocol sets out that employers should issue a pre-return to work form for workers to complete at least three days before they return. The form should include the following questions:

  • Do you have symptoms of cough, fever, high temperature, sore throat, runny nose, breathlessness or flu like symptoms now or in the past 14 days?

  • Have you been diagnosed with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 infection in the last 14 days?

  • Are you a close contact of a person who is a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19 in the past 14 days, i.e. less than 2 metres for more than 15 minutes accumulative in 1 day?

  • Have you been advised by a doctor to self-isolate at this time?

  • Have you been advised by a doctor to cocoon at this time?

The Protocol also provides that temperature testing should be implemented in line with public health advice which does not, at present, recommend temperature testing in the workplace. Specific guidance for schools is awaited.

Needless to say the templates for all of this will have to be agreed at sectoral level between unions and management.

What to do now?

  • Develop and / or update a business COVID-19 Response Plan. The Plan should outline how to deal with a suspected case of COVID-19 in the workplace and identify a response team. Workers should be given induction training on COVID-19 on their return to the workplace. As already stated schools will be looking to the Department for assistance and direction in providing this.

  • Update occupational health and safety risk assessments and safety statements. Risk assessments for the workplace and related activities should be carried out and workers should be asked to inform their employers of any particular risk factors. It should be communicated clearly to workers that this information is necessary to facilitate a safe return to work. Many schools will require external expert advice in updating their Safety Statements, etc.

  • Appoint COVID-19 representatives, a number proportionate to the number of workers, to assist with implementing and monitoring adherence to measures introduced. 

Prepare contingency measures to address increased rates of worker absenteeism and the implementation of the measures necessary to reduce the spread of COVID-19, e.g. changing work patterns. This will involve amending sick leave regulations to address absenteeism; changing work patterns is more easily said than done in the school context. 

Conclusion

In this article, we have flagged to schools the obligations that have been imposed on them as employers. We expect the Department to provide further and better detail on the implementation of the Protocol to the school environment. As shown, the Protocol imposes significant new obligations on schools as employers. There will be a need to consult with the Department and the Education Partners to plan the re-opening of schools. The challenge is that there is not much time to do all of this if schools are to re-open in September.

For more information and expert guidance on addressing the challenges highlighted, please contact a member of our Education team.

We are running two webinars next week on the Return to School. We would welcome any suggestions from you on the content of the webinar in terms of any particular concerns you may have. You can do this by contact events@mhc.ie


The content of this article is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute legal or other advice.

Discuss your related queries now with Liam Riordan.


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