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Schools under 'incredible pressure' due to staff shortages amid current Covid-19 wave

Staff absence in schools is reportedly “very high” due to the current wave of the virus.

SCHOOLS ACROSS THE country are currently under “incredible pressure” due to staff shortages amid the current spike in Covid-19 cases. 

On 28 February, a number of specific protective measures in place in schools and early learning facilities were dropped, such as pods, social distancing and staggering of breaks.

The requirements for masks in retail settings, hospitality settings and other indoor public settings, including schools, was also lifted. 

Despite the rise in Covid-19 cases in recent weeks, the Government has been adamant it is not contemplating the return of restrictions.

Speaking yesterday, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the Chief Medical Officer had not recommended re-introducing measures to curb the spread of the virus.

Martin said he had spoken to Dr Tony Holohan in the previous 48 hours.

“This current wave seems to be less impactful, less virulent, the CMO is of that view, than earlier variants and it doesn’t justify further economic restrictions.”

Public health officials yesterday reported 8,910 PCR-confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Ireland and 14,215 people had registered a positive antigen test through the HSE portal on Wednesday. This brought the combined total of Covid-19 cases reported yesterday to 23,125. 

Speaking to The Journal, Irish Primary Principals Network (IPPN) CEO Páiric Clerkin said “the impact of Covid in still very, very significant” and staff absence in schools is “very high” due to the current wave of the virus. 

Clerkin added that there is also a shortage of substitute teachers available to fill in for staff members who are out sick. 

“The bottom line is, they’re under incredible pressure at the moment,” he said. 

“[Shortages] make it nearly impossible to carry on,” Clerkin said. 

He explained that previously, as an emergency measure when faced with staff shortages, schools would split up a class between other classes within the school. 

However, he said: “But during Covid times you’re trying not to do that. You’re trying to minimise the interaction, you’re trying to keep numbers down in rooms, so it’s really, really difficult to manage.” 

He added that if there are very high transmission levels of Covid-19, “I think it’s prudent to encourage people to wear their masks in indoor settings”. 

In a statement to The Journal, the ASTI, which represents about 18,500 secondary teachers, said the availability of substitute teachers “is a long-standing issue for second-level schools which has been exacerbated by Covid-19″. 

It said schools have found this issue to be “particularly challenging” since January.

“The ASTI has been liaising with the Department of Education regarding arrangements to alleviate the situation in the short-term, including engaging with student teachers as substitute teachers,” the union said. 

Support for schools

In a statement to The Journal, the Department of Education said its helpline remains open to support schools and that measures taken by the Department to support the supply of substitute teachers also remain in place. 

Ahead of the reopening of schools in January after the Christmas break, guidance issued by the Department of Education instructed schools to maximise in-person teaching “for as many students as possible” and provide remote learning when classes cannot take place in schools.

The guidance noted that, as a minimum, schools should remain open for children with special educational needs “in all situations”.

Third and fourth year student teachers were also made available to cover absences until the mid-term break in February.

In a statement to The Journal at the time, the Department of Education outlined the two different approaches to providing cover for absences in primary schools and secondary schools.

In secondary schools, a temporary arrangement was put in place to allow all post-primary teachers, including principal teachers and deputy principal teachers, to work more than 22 hours per week to provide substitution cover.

The Department spokesperson said where “every effort” has been made by a school to provide substitution cover without success, schools are advised to contact the Department of Education by email and “an inspector will provide further support”.

“If operational challenges occur due to staff absences schools are expected to maximise on-site education for State examination year groups and fifth year classes,” the spokesperson said.

For primary schools, the advice for covering absences was to check:

  • The supply panel if the school is part of a supply panel cluster arrangement,
  • School’s own panel of regular substitutes,
  • National substitute service/Subseeker,
  • Student teachers,
  • Other local arrangements such as the administrative principal/ administrative, deputy principal if applicable, or other non-classroom teachers.

“It is also recognised that there may be a substantial number of children absent due to Covid-19 or as a result of being a close contact in household situations and therefore class numbers may be smaller,” the Department spokesperson added.

Clerkin said many student teachers will be beginning work placements over the coming weeks. He said it is anticipated that once the colleges close for summer in May, student teachers will then be available to work until the end of the school year. Primary schools remain open until the end of June. 

Covid wave

The healthcare system is also facing significant pressure due to the current wave of Covid-19. 

Speaking to The Journal, Irish Association for Emergency Medicine (IAEM) spokesperson and senior emergency consultant at Sligo Regional Hospital Dr Fergal Hickey said the pressure on Emergency Departments is “probably the worst we’ve seen during the whole Covid-19 pandemic”. 

“It’s not that there are large numbers of patients in intensive care, there aren’t, although that number is on the way up, but the issue is twofold,” Dr Hickey said.

“One is that this is a more contagious variant of Omicron … but also there’s a lot of patients who are coming with other problems … and they are found to have Covid incidentally,” he said. 

Dr Hickey said most patients in hospital with Covid-19 at the moment are “not particularly sick” but added that “you can’t put them with other patients who don’t have Covid”.

“It’s a real challenge, we cannot safely stream people in the way that we’d like to,” he said. 

One virologist has said the government could respond to the latest wave of Covid-19 by implementing free mass antigen testing across the population. 

Dr Gerald Barry, assistant professor of virology at UCD, told The Journal’s coronavius newsletter that Ireland is currently not testing enough people for the virus.

With reporting by Céimin Burke and Nicky Ryan

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