Impossible to plan ahead when dealing with Omicron, school principal says

‘A lot can happen in two days,’ says Martin Fallon ahead of Thursday’s reopening

Martin Fallon, principal of Drumshanbo Vocational School, says it's impossible to plan ahead when dealing with a virus like Omicron.

With 42 teachers and 353 students in the Co Leitrim school, he knows for sure of one teacher who will be absent on Thursday but is braced for many more no-shows due to infection and the rules on close contacts. "A lot can happen in two days."

With an average of four teachers out every day since September, there were days last term when eight teachers were absent, or 10 staff including SNAs, he pointed out.

“The biggest issue facing us is substitute teachers. The Minister is talking about the availability of student teachers but there is so much paperwork involved with vetting and so on, that it can take a week before everything is sorted. And in any case there does not seem to be a plethora of students available.”


He says schools would be very fortunate indeed to get a substitute teacher for the subject affected by a teacher being out. “So in reality you are talking about having someone in to supervise rather than to teach.”

Fallon is inclined to believe that each school is best placed to deal with the specific circumstances facing it on reopening day.

“We could come back on Thursday and have only one teacher out or there would be seven or eight out. It is going to be different in every school. Maybe it would be good if each school could make the decision locally, depending on their circumstances.”

He believes all students have missed out but feels particularly for this year’s Leaving Cert students and for the first years.

“Normally in our school and in many others, first years get the option of subject sampling – they do all subjects so they can make an informed decision before choosing.”

Teachers being out has meant that is not always possible.

And while there was an outpouring of sympathy for last year’s Leaving Cert students, he says things are “even more difficult” for the class of 2022. But there hasn’t been enough discussion about the options available to them, especially with regard to accredited grades. “They should have that option.”

With Hepa filters regarded as a key tool in keeping air pure, the Drumshanbo principal says: “I don’t know any school in the region who has them in yet.”

While funding has been sanctioned, he says by the time they are installed this latest wave could well be over.

“We were lucky that the weather has been unseasonably mild and we let students wear jackets in class but the forecast is not so good now,” he pointed out. “The heating will be on but the heat will be going out the windows. We all know the price of oil and we will be using twice as much.”

Marese McDonagh

Marese McDonagh

Marese McDonagh, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports from the northwest of Ireland