A record 14,000 teachers were absent for Covid reasons last month as schools struggled to find enough staff to keep classes open.
Department of Education figures provided to The Irish Times show the number of teacher absences climbed from 9,278 in December to 14,390 in January, a 55 per cent increase.
These teachers were absent for a range of reasons including having Covid-19 symptoms, testing positive or being identified as a close contact.
The figures understate the full scale of absences as they do not include teachers absent in about 270 schools run by Education and Training Boards.
Teachers’ unions and school managers have warned in recent days that many schools were continuing to struggle to find enough substitute teachers, despite a reduction in the level of Covid-19 in the wider population.
While the release of hundreds of student teachers into classrooms has played a key role in supporting schools, there is concern that many are due to return to college from the end of this week.
Department of Education figures show the extent to which the system has been under pressure over recent months.
A total of 3,250 teachers were absent for Covid reasons in October last year, rising to 9,199 in November, 9,278 in December and 14,390 in January of this year.
The overall level of teacher absences, meanwhile, has also resulted in soaring spending on substitute teachers.
It is estimated that the cost for substitute teachers in 2021 will be in the region of €300 million, up from €244 million the previous year.
Minister for Education Norma Foley has said this enhanced substitute cover has played a key role in keeping schools open.
At primary level a total of 680 teachers are employed on a full-time basis on teacher supply panels which cover about 2,700 schools.
In addition, there have also been changes which permit teachers on career breaks to do unlimited substitution, as well as changes to allow job-sharing teachers carry out substitute work on the days they are rostered off.
The department said its inspectorate was continuing to provide support to schools where they continued to experience difficulties in sourcing sufficient substitute cover.
Public health advice
Meanwhile, new advice on whether face masks should remain mandatory in schools is expected later this week.
The National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) is due to meet on Thursday to review safety measures in schools such as mask wearing, physical distancing and other limits on school activities.
Updated guidance is due to issue in advance of the return of school following the mid-term break, which begins on Friday.
Séamus Mulconry, general secretary of the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association, which supports more than 2,800 primary schools, has urged a cautious easing of restrictions.
“The pandemic may be over for much of the public, but it is not over for schools,” he said.
“We’re seeing high level of absences among staff and pupils. The lack of substitute cover has re-emerged as a really serious issue for schools.”
The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) said any relaxation of school infection control measures should be delayed for at least two more months unless public health authorities can confirm the situation in primary schools will improve dramatically in the coming weeks.
INTO general secretary John Boyle said he believed the level of infection within primary schools had not been captured properly.
He said the “scrapping” of public health risk assessments in schools, along with contact tracing and PCR testing, meant the system was being kept in the dark.