John Weir’s phone was pinging all day with messages from teachers unable to attend school for Covid-19 reasons.
"This morning I had eight teachers out. A few hours later it had grown to 12 teachers out. I also have three special needs assistants who can't make it in, " says Mr Weir, principal of St Mary's Parish Primary School, Drogheda, Co Louth.
“We’re struggling. There are no substitutes. The supply panels are fully booked. I texted all the usual substitute options; none are available. Many of the student teachers are booked as well.”
The school has had to contend with staff shortages before, but he is worried that surge due to the Omicron variant will prove more challenging than those that came before.
“There is a real sense of apprehension. I worry that this is how we are today. If it is as contagious as they make out, the scale of shortages we face next week could be even greater,” Mr Weir says.
In some ways, he says, the school is lucky. St Mary’s is a large schools and has 40 mainstream teachers and 17 learning support teachers for students with special educational needs. A measure of last resort involves redeploying support teachers into mainstream classes.
“It’s the least worst solution. It is a difficult decision, but it can be that or sending an entire class home. Smaller schools won’t have this option.”
The situation facing St Mary’s is playing out in hundreds of schools across Ireland. Staff absences linked to Covid-19 and a shortage of substitute teachers means many are operating on the windy edge of whether it is sustainable to keep classes going.
An Irish Primary Principals’ Network (IPPN) survey of 1,500 school indicates that about half are down about 20 per cent of their teachers, while a further 8 per cent said up to half or more are unavailable.
It is a similar situation at second level, where school managers estimate that the proportion of teacher absences is between 15 and 20 per cent.
Bryan Collins, principal of Scoil Naomh Feichín in Termonfeckin, Co Louth, said there is a rising level of anxiety among local primary school principals.
“We are all extremely worried that we won’t have an adequate number of teachers to enable our schools to remain open over the coming weeks,” he says.
“The scariest thing is that this situation will potentially get worse once all the pupils are back at school. Transmission and infection rates will undoubtedly soar.”
At his school there are five teachers unable to return to work this week for Covid reasons.
“I’m currently frantically looking for anyone who will agree to act as a sub teacher for a day or two,” he says.
Under Department of Education guidance, schools are required to make “every effort” to ensure classes that stay at home are provided with remote learning. Collins says this will be a challenge.
“Will the teacher be well enough to teach? Remote learning isn’t as simple as switching it on and off. It requires preparation,” Mr Collins adds. “Whatever happens, we’ll do all we can to keep classes in school - but there may be times when that is not physically possible and parent will need to understand that we’ve no other options.”