The needs of pupils at St Malachy's national school in Finglas, north Dublin have never been greater, says principal Eoin Dolan.
Many children at the school – located in one of the most socially deprived areas in the State – were not able to engage in online learning during school closures due to a lack of devices or broadband.
About a third of pupils have special or additional needs, while one in six struggles with social or emotional problems.
Yet, the principal says, the school is due to lose one of its 12 teachers shortly due to a shortfall in enrolment of three pupils. The impact, he says, will be felt right across the entire school.
“Our children crave consistency but we won’t be able to give it to them. We’ll have to merge four classes into three, splitting up friends who’ve been in the same class,” says Dolan.
“A reduction in teacher numbers and crowded classrooms has led to violent outbursts, even assaults, and suspensions in the past. It has a knock-on effect on everyone. It upsets a class and the whole school.”
Given the disruption caused by Covid-19 and the pressing need for catch-up education for children with special educational needs, in particular, Dolan says he hopes the reduction will be paused.
“Our children need all the support they can get,” he says. “Parents don’t have the resources to access private supports or therapies for their children.”
St Malachy’s is one of many schools seeking a freeze in staffing numbers in light of the disruption linked to the pandemic.
Last year, for example, more than 400 primary schools lost a school teacher due to falling enrolments based on school census returns.
This year, many schools say their enrolment numbers dipped due to a combination of factors such as the lockdown limiting recruitment drives or pupils staying at home for coronavirus-related reasons.
A spokesman for the Department of Education said staffing resources for next year are based on pupil enrolments on September 30th last.
“The staffing schedule operates in a clear and transparent manner and treats all similar types of schools equally irrespective of location,” he said, adding that an improvement in the pupil-teacher ratio means schools will be provided with one teacher for every 25 pupils. A reduction in the retention scale has also been introduced for September 2021.
“These measures will help to ensure that less pupils are required to recruit or retain a teacher,” he said.
The extent to which school enrolment has been affected by Covid-19 remains unclear. Some schools have expressed concern about students who did not return to the classroom when restrictions were lifted due to fears about bringing the virus home to high-risk family members. The department has not yet disclosed the numbers affected despite requests to do so.
Michelle Eustace, St Malachy's deputy principal, says the lockdown meant the school lost the opportunity to recruit new children moving into the community.
“These ad hoc enrolments we experience annually are a much-needed boost to the number of children we have on our roll and very often rely on in order to keep a teacher, such as this year.”
Her fear is the loss of a teacher will serve to widen the educational disadvantage gap.
“It will lead to further inequality in education and opportunities for those already marginalised in our society and will have far-reaching negative consequences for our community and society in general,” she says.