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Thousands of principals fear impact of teacher shortages as schools reopen today

Student teachers are being drafted in to cover Covid absences.

Image: Alamy Stock Photo

PRIMARY AND SECONDARY school students are back in classrooms today amid widespread concerns over staff shortages due to Covid-19 infections and close contacts.

With the coronavirus disease highly prevalent in communities, principals of schools across the country have warned that significant numbers of teachers, special needs assistants and non-teaching staff will not be available due to having Covid-19 or being identified as a close contact.

Teachers’ unions also flagged problems; the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) noted that up to 8,000 teachers (around 15%) are expected to be absent today while the Association of Secondary Teachers, Ireland (ASTI) said between 10-50% of member teachers will not be available due to Covid.

The Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI) has said that the Department of Education must finally step up and match the “phenomenal commitment” of school staff and students in keeping schools open.

It said that the failure to make a decision on the provision of appropriate masks to schools “beggars belief”, adding that delays are putting health and safety in schools at further risk.  

Speaking today, TUI General Secretary Michael Gillespie said school communities are returning to “unprecedentedly challenging environments” around the country today.

“It is absolutely critical that the Department steps up and supports the efforts of staff and students to keep schools open. Too often during the pandemic, the Department has failed completely to act in a timely manner. For example, TUI first called for CO2 monitors in November 2020, but these were only provided at the start of the following school year, and even then the rollout was inconsistent and delayed,” he said.

School staff, including principals, are already overburdened by additional Covid-19 related workload and need the Department’s support now more than ever. Health and safety cannot be put at further risk by unnecessary and unfathomable delays in decision-making.

A spokesperson for the Department of Education said that a number of measures have been taken to ensure cover is provided for these absences, and also said that due to the prevalence of Covid, some children may be absent too meaning classes could be smaller.

The general chain of command in deciding on how to provide cover is for a school to exhaust all options in finding a substitute, and if that fails to contact the Department of Education. If they cannot reach the Department, they can make a decision and then notify the Department of it as soon as possible.

The various ways substitutes are being sourced

New guidance issued by the Department of Education yesterday afternoon 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 have also been made available to cover absences between now and the mid-term break in February.

In a statement to The Journal, 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 is 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 is for covering absences is 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.

‘Significant challenge for schools’

A survey carried out by the Irish Primary Principals Network (IPPN) this week found that 40% of schools had concerns about having adequate staff available to cover every classroom.

Pairic Clerkin of the IPPN said staffing will be a significant challenge in schools for the coming weeks.

“In a school situation, you have to have a teacher for every class. That’s the bottom line. Trying to make that happen will be the challenge for schools, principals, for everyone in the system,” Clerkin said.

That’s why we really do appreciate the support of the colleges in making their student teachers available to support us for the next couple of months. That’s really helpful.

The IPPN chief executive added that the student teachers have gained experience teaching in classrooms over the course of two years and are well placed to support the education system in the “crisis situation”.

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Education Minister Norma Foley said yesterday that she would not be seeking a derogation to exempt teachers from restricted movements rules for close contacts. 

Despite Ireland’s high Covid case numbers, public health chiefs gave assurances to school management and unions that it was safe to return to the classroom ahead of today’s reopening.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin yesterday defended the government’s decision to open schools as planned today, saying that they were putting the child’s needs first.

Martin said that “children do best when at school” and that this was the motivation behind the decision to proceed with the reopening of education.

The National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) is meeting today to discuss the current Covid-19 situation in Ireland. 

Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath said following a Cabinet meeting yesterday that the public health advisers are not expected to recommend any fresh restrictions.

With reporting from Gráinne Ní Aodha.

About the author:

Céimin Burke

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