Many schools reporting record low attendances on the first day back after the Christmas break as pupils stayed away for Covid reasons.
Primary and secondary schools said pupil numbers were down by an average of about 30 per cent due to families self-isolating or apprehension over returning given the level of Covid-19 in the community.
Schools were also forced to scramble to find substitution cover after around 20 per cent of teachers on average were unable to attend class for Covid reasons.
However, most principals who spoke to The Irish Times said they managed to find temporary cover and a relatively small number resorted to keeping classes at home.
Bryan Collins, principal of Scoil Naomh Feichín in Termonfeckin, Co Louth, said pupil absences climbed to a record high on Thursday.
“We have 83 pupils absent out of 290. I’m here 37 years and that is unprecedented. We’ve never had so many pupils absent on a given day,” he said.
“The explanations we are being given are that families are finishing off isolation periods, or many families are sick or parents are waiting for their children to be vaccinated.”
Mr Collins said an online poll of 36 primary schools in the Louth-Meath area this morning found similar levels of pupil absences ranging from 25 to 35 per cent.
One school in the area had asked pupils to stay at home due to lack of staff.
“That’s a good sign as it shows that schools seem to be managing to cope with teacher absences,” Mr Collins added.
At second level, school principals reported a similar pattern of non-attendances and major challenges in finding substitute teaching staff.
However, a survey of about 260 secondary schools by the Joint Managerial Body (JMB) found that over 90 per cent were able to operate without keeping classes at home.
“We’re pleased that so many are able to operate fully, although there are major challenges locally and school communities are working hard to maximise teaching and learning,” said John Curtis, the JMB’s general secretary.
Barbara Ennis, principal of Alexandra College in Dublin 6, said pupil absences climbed to a record high on Thursday.
“We’ve 198 absent out of 600 students. I’ve never seen so many out. We have a very good attendance rate here but this is the worst ever,” she said.
Staffing was also a challenge, she said, with 12 teachers unable to attend for Covid reasons.
“It’s been all hands on deck. Everyone is being asked to supervise or teach classes; we’ve brought in extra people and lay people. It’s pretty nightmarish...
“If this becomes uncontrollable, we’ll have to look at going online. As of now, we’re determined to keeping going as best we can.”
The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) said the first day back proved “incredibly difficult” due to staff shortages.
The INTO’s general secretary John Boyle said school leaders and and teachers put in “Trojan work” to ensure the reopening of schools.
However, he called on the Government to re-instate contact tracing in schools in order to maximise the chances of providing in-person teaching.
Louise Tobin, principal at St Joseph's Primary School in Tipperary town, said concern over Covid appeared to be the main reason parents were keeping their children out of school.
“Our attendance is down by 33 per cent. The only day when we had a higher number of absences was on the day of the recent storm,” she said.
“Locally in the Tipperary area other principals say between 30 and 40 per cent of pupils are out.
“We’re aware of very few pupils who are close contacts. We can’t say for sure why attendance is so low, but there may be a certain level of caution and families are making their own decisions.”
She said an average of between 25 and 50 per cent of staff are unable to attend school for Covid reasons in Tipperary, based on contacts with other principals.
While schools were struggling to find substitution cover, she said most had managed to avoid sending classes home.
“One school in the region has had to send three classes home,” she said.
Linda Dennehy, principal of Scoil Íosagáin infant school in Mallow, Co Cork, also said pupils' attendance was down by about a third.
While six staff members at the school were unable to attend for Covid reasons, she said the school managed to find cover by redeploying existing staff or finding short-term substitutes.
“We’re expecting the start to the middle of next week to be horrific. There are so many out right now and even more staff and pupils will likely end up as close contacts next week.
“However, our staff have been fantastic in stepping up and plugging holes where they are. They are nervous, like we all are, but we’re delighted to be back in school,” she said.