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‘People are laughing at teachers… I think vulnerable need to be sorted before we can ask for priority' – division on industrial action over vaccine roll-out

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Billy Sheehan is angry how teachers are being perceived. Picture by Owen Breslin

Billy Sheehan is angry how teachers are being perceived. Picture by Owen Breslin

Billy Sheehan is angry how teachers are being perceived. Picture by Owen Breslin

Teachers say there is little appetite for industrial action over access to Covid-19 vaccines, amid concern about how they are being perceived publicly following a series of rows with the Government during the pandemic.

Last week, teachers’ unions passed a joint motion supporting measures up to industrial action if the Government does not meet a promise on vaccinations. This allows the TUI, ASTI and INTO to ballot members before the start of the next school year on potential strike action, or other industrial action, if they are unhappy with the Government’s response to calls for greater access to vaccines.

Teachers had been told they could expect to be among the first third of the population to receive Covid-19 vaccines, but changes to the inoculation plan prioritising people according to age mean teachers face longer waits for the jab.

However, some teachers have been left angered by the unions’ move, saying it casts them in a negative light.

Billy Sheehan, a teacher at a Deis secondary school in Dublin, said he is angry over how teachers are being perceived.

“People are laughing at teachers,” he said. “The public perception of us is quite poor. The ASTI walked out of meetings on the Leaving Cert earlier in the year and now they are passing motions on potential industrial action. It doesn’t make sense to me.

“My mother is 69, can’t meet friends and family and hasn’t been vaccinated. My uncle is 75 and hasn’t received it. I think those people need to be sorted before teachers can start making calls looking for priority.

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“I don’t think there is any appetite for a strike or industrial action. I don’t see it.”

Mr Sheehan has been teaching for 17 years, but only became a union member last year because colleagues at his school wanted to have full membership across the staff. He agreed the move could be progressive and signed up to the ASTI. This weekend he is preparing to leave the union.

The maths and geography teacher, who played inter-county football for Laois, feels there is a disconnect between members and officials at teaching unions.

“I will be leaving. There are teachers who can’t come back to work yet because of their own circumstances. The unions should certainly fight for those, but I think most of the rest of us could wait for our turn.”

He said the majority of teachers are happy to be working with their students, despite concerns about Covid-19. Schools return to full capacity tomorrow for the first time since Christmas when the first four years of secondary school pupils return to classrooms.

“Gardaí have been working every day during the pandemic, and the same with retail workers. They are at risk. It is very hard for us to say we need vaccines when those groups have not been done.”

Other teachers and school leaders have echoed similar views.

While none of the unions want teachers to be prioritised above healthcare workers and vulnerable groups, one school principal, who asked to speak anonymously because he doesn’t want his view to be seen as representative of all his staff, said there is an unease among many of his colleagues.

“The unions don’t want us vaccinated ahead of more vulnerable cohorts, and that is correct, but some teachers can’t stomach calls for us to be given any sort of priority when some of their own students are unable to come back to school because they are in an at-risk group,” he said.

Each of the three teachers’ unions said their joint motion was passed at their national congress events last week with unanimous support. However, union sources did say sections of their memberships expressed views the motions on the vaccine issue went further than they would have liked.

ASTI general secretary Kieran Christie told the Sunday Independent research conducted by the union showed a high level of concern among members about health and safety during the pandemic. He said teachers work in crowded settings and the Government must be held to account over its earlier promise to include teachers in the first 30pc of the vaccine roll-out. Potential industrial action would be a last resort, he added.

An INTO spokesman said congress delegates are chosen by the membership to be representative of members across the entire country. He said last week’s motion was a precautionary approach. “Should this union pursue a ballot for industrial action, a legal requirement, each and every member will be entitled to a vote,” he said.

TUI general secretary Michael Gillespie said there are legitimate reasons some teachers should be vaccinated early.

“What I am interested in is protecting not just our members but the services they provide. Vaccinating them will protect the service and therefore protect all of society.

“Infection rates are higher in special schools and special classes, so we believe if there was to be a priority among teachers, those in special schools and classes and SNAs should be prioritised.”


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