As more information comes to light about the Covid-19 Delta variant, first identified in India – its transmissibility, its potential for vaccine resistance and its increasing prevalence within education settings – we must again ask: what is being done to protect vulnerable teachers?
As a teacher in the third trimester of pregnancy, I am classed as clinically vulnerable. While I am at no greater risk of catching the virus, I am at greater risk of hospitalisation and adverse outcomes should I contract it. This includes dangers to my baby, such as an increased risk of pre-term delivery.
Unlike other vulnerable staff who have been prioritised for vaccines, pregnant women have only been vaccinated in line with others in their age group. For many pregnant teachers, this means that we are teaching while unvaccinated or having received just one dose.
Given what we know about the importance of receiving the full two doses, this leaves us with minimal protection in a setting that data from Public Health England has shown is the prime source of infections at the moment.
Out-of-date Covid guidance for pregnant teachers in schools
It doesn’t help that guidance from the government on how pregnant workers should be protected is vague, unhelpful and, given the risks posed by the new variant, significantly out of date (the guidance has not been updated since 29 March).
Throughout the pandemic, schools have had to rely on this flimsy general guidance for pregnant workers that does not consider the particular contexts of school settings. The lack of specific, detailed guidance has led to a lottery when it comes to how different schools interpret the limited information on offer.
According to the current guidance, clinically extremely vulnerable teachers, including those in their third trimester of pregnancy, are advised to take “a more precautionary approach”. The wording of this guidance appears to place the onus on workers themselves, rather than on employers. It is up to individuals to be more cautious.
Yet if there is one thing that we have learned from the efforts to stem the flow of the virus over the past year, it is that it requires a collective response. What use is it for a pregnant teacher to continue to wear a mask if the 32 children she is standing in front of for an hour at a time are not?
What use is it for her family to diligently use lateral flow testing if the majority of the students she encounters each day are not? What use is it for her to ventilate each classroom she teaches in if a previous teacher has unthinkingly spent an hour with all the doors and windows shut?
Placing the responsibility on individual teachers
How can an individual teacher take a “more precautionary approach” in any meaningful way in such a busy, communal setting?
These questions are not answered within any official government information. This lack of meaningful guidance leaves pregnant teachers and decision-makers within schools – those with responsibility for staff safety – in an extremely difficult and confusing position.
What is needed for pregnant teachers to feel safe in the workplace is updated guidance outlining exactly how to stay safe in a school environment.
While in-school risk assessments are a valuable tool in ensuring the safety of vulnerable and pregnant staff, for so long as the guidance from the top remains thin, the protection offered by these assessments will remain variable across the country, and many pregnant teachers will continue to be placed at unnecessary risk.
Victoria Addis is an English teacher in the East Midlands. She tweets as @ms_a_englit