Parents may see more primary school classes being sent home over the coming weeks due to a “crisis” in substitution cover which will worsen due to new rules on close contacts, school managers have warned.
Under new rules announced on Tuesday, people - including teachers - who are close contacts of a confirmed Covid-19 case in their household are being advised to restrict their movements for five days, even if vaccinated.
Until now those who were fully vaccinated were not required to self-isolate or restrict their movements when listed as close contacts.
Séamus Mulconry, general secretary of the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association, which supports more than 2,800 primary schools, said the change will worsen teacher supply.
“We already have a substitution crisis and schools are operating at their limits. These new rules will make it even worse. In a worst-case scenario, we’re looking at classes being sent home,” he said.
“We’ve welcomed the measures being taken by the Department of Education to ameliorate the crisis, but there’s no doubt that this will make even more challenging.”
The Irish Primary Principals’ Network also warned of increasing pressure on primary schools.
“It is really, really worrying from a school principal’s point of view,” said Pairic Clerkin, the network’s chief executive.
“We saw an example of a class being sent home earlier this week. I worry that school boards of management will face difficult decisions over the health and safety of pupils if they are unable to get cover for a class.”
Minister for Education Norma Foley said her department was responding by providing a range of measures to deal with shortages of substitute teachers.
This includes including increased numbers of teaching panels and recruitment changes that allow retired and other teachers to work, and more flexibility for student teachers to work in classrooms.
Meanwhile, the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) said there needed to be clarity on antigen testing.
“We’ve no guidance, principals don’t have the clarity that they need so really a bit of speed is needed on this,” a union spokesman said.
The shortage of substitute teachers to date has been less acute at second level and has affected the supply of qualified staff in key subject areas.
However, secondary teachers’ unions said the latest close contact rule change will add “enormously” to challenges facing schools.
Kieran Christie, general secretary of the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI) said a "massive effort" is being sustained to keep schools operational in the face of substantial difficulties.
“The rule regarding five days of restricted movement if someone in a teacher’s household tests positive obviously makes sense and is necessary from a public health perspective, but will add enormously to the challenges schools face not least of which will be substitution when teachers are absent for Covid-19 related reasons.”
Michael Gillespie, general secretary of the Teachers' Union of Ireland, said that while the five-day rule will shrink the supply of available teachers, it is difficult to say to at what level it will affect schools.
“It means there is a new layer of people who will not be available in school, but it’s hard to quantify. It will depend on the spread of the virus in the community generally. If we want to address that, we must all strictly adhere to the latest public health advice.”