Hiring of 200 cover teachers among new measures to tackle schools’ staffing crisis

School boards draw up contingency plans for remote teaching due to shortages

Minister for Education Norma Foley has announced a series of urgent measures aimed at tackling a staffing crisis facing schools including an extra 200 substitutes and moves to boost the supply of students and retired teachers.

The move comes as many schools say they are struggling to keep classes open due to an acute shortage of staff linked to high rates of sick leave or teachers being forced to self-isolate due to Covid-19.

It is understood that boards of management for a number of schools met in recent days to draw up contingency plans for remote teaching.

A number of education sources confirmed that several primary schools took the step after being advised by principals that classes may need to be sent home due to staff shortages.


“These discussions are taking place across many schools because there are urgent health and safety implications if we can’t supervise classes,” one source said.

Only a handful of schools so far have taken the step of sending classes home. However, school managers say shortages have grown more acute in the past week or so following a tightening in the definition of what constitutes a close contact.

Ms Foley, meanwhile, confirmed details on Tuesday night of several new measures aimed at boosting the supply of substitution cover. They include:

  • Hiring an additional 200 substitute teacher on a full-time basis to supply panels for primary schools which are facing significant challenges. This will bring total numbers on supply panels to 680;
  • The release of additional student teachers from higher education institutions up to the end of the year;
  • Allowing retired teachers to return to classrooms until the end of the current school term without any reduction in their pension;
  • The suspension of continuous professional development courses at primary level - where substitution is required to take part - until the mid-term break in February 2022;
  • Releasing teachers involved in teacher education support services to provide substitution cover at primary level.

Pairic Clerkin, chief executive of the Irish Primary Principals' Network (IPPN), said he was hopeful that some of the measures will boost the supply of trainee teachers, in particular.

“We’re at a critically challenging period in trying to manage schools amid an increase in Covid cases,” he said.

The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) said it welcomed the measures and appreciated the flexibility afforded to student teachers by colleges to enable them to carry out substitute work.

The flexibility may allow significant numbers of additional trainee teachers who are completing postgraduate teacher education courses or in year three or four of their bachelor of education courses to work in classrooms.

Hibernia, one of the largest providers of teacher education, for example, has indicated that about 500 students may be available after the end of this week.

At post-primary level, Paul Crone, director of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, said many schools were also struggling to find enough teachers to provide cover.

He said schools have so far managed to avoid sending classes home thanks to the support of the school communities and teachers being willing to go the extra mile.

The association, he said, was engaging with the Department of Education over other potential measures which may support schools.

In the Dáil on Tuesday evening, Sinn Féin education spokeswoman Rose Conway Walsh claimed that the Department of Education “too often” seeks to minimise issues around cases of Covid-19 in schools,

Ms Conway Walsh said that in Mayo today 15 per cent of children in schools had the virus. She said “we all want schools to be open and functioning well,” she said but hit out at the department’s approach.

But Minister for Education Norma Foley said “we have followed public health advice and guidance in our schools and it is the expert view of public health that our schools are basis of low transmission” based on the measures in place.

She also said that guidelines on the use of antigen testing will be made available to schools, staff and parents and “will be communicated in advance of Monday 29th November”.

How to use the tests correctly is very important “and there has been particular emphasis has been given to that”, she added.

Ms Foley said during education questions in the Dáil that a “significant body of work is underway on antigen testing” and the programme in schools will be led by the HSE.

Stressing that it is “merely an additional tool” to existing infection control measures.

Parents and guardians of a child confirmed with Covid-19 are asked to inform school principals who will then inform parents of other children in the pod with that pupil.

Where there are two cases in a class in more than one pod in a seven-day test antigen tests will be offered to every child in the class. No personal details of the child will be shared.

“These parents will be provided with the option to receive free antigen tests for their child which they can order to be delivered to their home.”

She said it was important that parents inform principals quickly if a child has received a PCR positive test. By doing this antigen tests can be offered to other parents.

It is not mandatory for children to receive antigen tests and they can continue to attend schools whether they receive such tests or not.

Meanwhile, the HSE said that community PCR testing, designed to process up to 20,000 tests per day at peak times, had reached in excess of 25,000 in the week to November 18th. On Monday, November 15th, more than 32,000 tests were scheduled.

Asked if there had been recent delays in providing PCR tests for close contacts, a HSE spokeswoman said that across all test centres, an average of 97 per cent of people referred by GPs or the contact tracing service received their test on the same or next day.

The HSE is working on providing further capacity for PCR tests through private testing services, similar to that recently opened at Dublin Airport, in Cork and Limerick amid concerns.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent