Leaning difficulties | 

Staffing 'biggest concern' as schools prepare to reopen on Thursday

'Staffing is our biggest concern. I’ve already had a couple of texts from staff members who are currently isolating'
There are currently no plans to delay the return of children to school this week

There are currently no plans to delay the return of children to school this week

Alan Sherry

School principals are gearing up to reopen on Thursday following the Christmas break but say staffing is going to be their main concern.

With record levels of Covid-19 sweeping through the country over the festive period questions have arisen over the reopening, particularly for primary school kids who are unvaccinated.

This weekend, senior Nphet and Government figures said that it is unlikely that schools will not reopen this Thursday as planned.

"We're not in the space of schools closing when the pubs are open till 8pm," said one senior figure. "First you close hospitality, then retail and everything else and then you close schools."

However, concerns over the impact of close contact rules on teacher availability has seen the Department of Education put in place measures to increase the number of substitutes available.

Retirees are being drafted in and moves made to free up between 2,500 and 3,500 3rd and 4th year and professional master of education (PME) students to support primary schools each week up to the February mid-term.

Senior Government sources said they expect that the rules for close contacts will be changed again by Nphet in the coming days.

Niamh Cullen

Niamh Cullen

Speaking to the Sunday World, Niamh Cullen, principal of Grace Park Educate Together National School in Dublin, said she hopes schools can reopen provided health experts say it is safe to do so. However, she believes staffing is going to be a major issue, and clear guidelines are needed on how to protect kids from Covid.

"Staffing is our biggest concern. I've already had a couple of texts from staff members who are currently isolating, and we're going to put a formal request out to staff on Tuesday to find out who is available and who is not.

"I know colleges have adapted some of the school placements due to start in January to try and help alleviate some of the crisis, but the biggest thing is getting staff and keeping classes open. I think we need a bit of guidance on that.

"There is such a lack of availability of staff at the moment. A colleague of mine from another Educate Together school in Dublin set up a WhatsApp group for principals and people who were available for subbing in Dublin.

"We've six of those groups now such is the level of people in them. We're finding if you can ask a day or two days before, you are much more likely to get someone than if you are asking on the morning."

Niamh said her school put plans in place for reopening and for remote learning before the Christmas holidays so will be prepared for either scenario, but the uncertainty this week isn't helpful.

"I think we're ready no matter what happens, but we all just want to know."

She said there needs to be clarity on the new guidelines on antigen and PCR tests, and more antigen tests made available to schools as well as more autonomy given to schools on when they close a class.

Currently, antigen tests are sent out to children who are considered close contacts, but Niamh said schools should have a supply on hand for regular testing.

Other issues include guidelines on wearing masks. Currently, only older primary school children are advised to wear masks, but it is not mandatory.

Niamh said in her school the numbers wearing masks in older classes dropped from around 90pc to around 50pc in the last term.

"We hope we'll open but would like to see some guidance on mask wearing. If they are going to ask children to wear masks in primary schools there should be guidance on that because it has been tricky for primary schools."

She said the Government seem to have an all-in or all-out approach to schools but should be able to adapt to different scenarios.

"This is two years going on and we have had plenty of time to come up with possible solutions for a scenario such as this and it really shouldn't be three or four days before we're due to reopen that it's being looked at."

She said she if the schools are to remain open, the measures to protect children and staff have to be in place.

"With that has to come the contact tracing, antigen testing, appropriate masks, more funding, clear guidelines and autonomy for schools to make decisions rather than have to wait on public health."

She said children with additional educational needs have particularly suffered during Covid as staff have had to be reassigned to look after full classes.

She added that children with difficult family circumstances also suffer when schools are closed.

"It's really important we can open as soon as possible for children who have very difficult family circumstances and for whom school is their refuge."

Today's Headlines

More Irish News

Download the Sunday World app

Now download the free app for all the latest Sunday World News, Crime, Irish Showbiz and Sport. Available on Apple and Android devices