Primary schools will be given access to more substitute teachers and trainees from college in a bid to ease a supply “crisis” which principals say could lead to pupils being sent home.
Minister for Education Norma Foley is understood to have signed off on a circular to be sent to all primary schools on Monday which will announce that 100 extra teachers are to be recruited on a full-time basis to provide substitute cover in areas where shortages are most acute.
This will bring the overall number of teachers on these supply panels to 480, which provide cover to about 2,500 primary schools.
In addition, teacher training colleges have been requested to be flexible to facilitate student teachers being available for substitution work.
In particular, teaching colleges have been requested to communicate with post-primary teaching students to advise them of the availability of substitution in primary schools.
The circular also confirms that work restrictions for job-sharing teachers or those on career breaks have been temporarily suspended.
This will allow these teachers to work additional days if available to cover vacancies in their own and other schools.
Principals are being requested to limit new bookings for supply panels after the mid-term break to absences occurring within two weeks in advance in order to ensure more flexibility for unplanned absences.
Schools are also being advised to use regular substitutes for release days for teaching principals.
They are also requested to work together to combine their allocation of principal release days into clusters so as to form a full-time fixed-term post to cover each school’s principal release days for the current school year.
The measures come as primary schools warn of growing problems accessing substitution cover.
The Irish Primary Principals Network (IPPN) warned last week that substitution cover was at a crisis point and schools were being forced to use unqualified staff or special needs teachers to provide emergency cover for classroom teachers who are out sick.
Pairic Clerkin, the network’s chief executive, said significant numbers of school staff were unable to turn up for work because of public health guidance, which recommends that staff with cold or flu symptoms should stay at home and get tested. In addition, Covid-19 precautions mean schools are not supposed to split up classes, which was used as a measure of last resort in the past.
“Our options are narrowing. We’re reaching a stage where school boards of management will be left with no other option but to send classes home, or keep them at home, for safety reasons,” he had said. But on Sunday night he welcomed the new circular, describing the extension of the supply panels as “a positive”.
“We would hope that that will create some extra capacity to help schools,” he said. But he noted the supply panels were not available to every school in the country. “So certainly we want to see that all schools have access to a supply panel.
“We will continue to work with the department and all other partners to seek other measures that will support schools to ensure that we have a supply of substitute teachers.”
Mr Clerkin believes schools will still be under "considerable pressure" in the coming weeks given the increase in Covid cases in the community.
He said the IPPN joins the INTO in calling for a return to contact tracing of Covid cases in primary schools.
“We have asked, like the INTO, for a review of contact tracing. We felt that decision [to end it] was premature at the time and perhaps that needs to be reviewed. We would be calling for a return to contact tracing in primary schools.”
The INTO also on Sunday night welcomed the plan to address the shortage of substitute teachers.
“The INTO has worked constructively with the Department of Education to address the substitution crisis and we welcome the additional measures we negotiated announced by Minister Foley today. In particular the 100 extra teaching posts for supply panels, authorisation for job-sharers who wish to work as substitutes in multiple schools, the ability for retired teachers to work for up to 50 days without their pensions being negatively affected and the extra flexibility from higher education institutions which should also increase the availability of substitutes to cover very short-term absences,” said INTO general secretary John Boyle.