The return to school today is coming with extra supports for primary principals to deal with the growing problem of finding substitutes to cover for absent teachers.
Schools are reopening to a challenging landscape amid concern over the rise in Covid cases, with the highest incidence among five to 12-year-olds.
The spread of the disease will put schools under pressure in the coming days and weeks.
Some struggled with high caseloads before the Halloween holiday.
And there were tensions as the Department of Education ordered the reopening of two schools, which had taken a decision to close because of outbreaks.
Ahead of the return to the classroom, Education Minister Norma Foley said it was her understanding antigen testing may be used, “in particular instances” in schools.
The matter is currently being considered by Nphet.
Meanwhile, new measures to address the substitution shortage in the primary sector include the creation of an additional 100 permanent posts on panels to supply schools with subs, while third-level colleges are being urged to maximise the availability of student teachers to fill classroom gaps.
Significant levels of unplanned teacher absences reported before mid-term were linked to public health guidance advising people to stay at home if they had symptoms and principals struggled to fill gaps.
Earlier in the pandemic, principals were free to use special education teachers to replace an absent mainstream teacher.
But since September 27 the Department of Education has asked them to desist.
However, while the new substitution supply measures are being bedded in, it is expected that schools will continue to call on special education teachers in emergencies,
School leaders had warned before the mid-term break that the substitute situation was so bad that they were facing the prospect of having to send classes home. Talks on the issue have been going on between the department and the education stakeholders, culminating in a circular being sent to primary schools as they reopen, setting out the enhanced arrangements.
Although Ms Foley denied a few weeks ago there was a sub crisis, the circular recognises “that there are particular pressures in this area at the moment due to Covid-19” and states that the new arrangements have been put in place for the remainder of the 2021/22 school year.
There are already 380 supply teachers on panels serving 2,500 of the country’s 3,200 primary schools, providing cover for unplanned or short-term absences.
The 100 extra posts, an increase of more than 25pc, will be made available in areas where significant challenges have been demonstrated in sourcing substitution.
Higher education institutions have also been requested to be flexible with student teachers to facilitate their availability for sub work, and to communicate with post primary post-graduate masters degree students to advise them of the availability of sub work in primary schools.
The circular allows for job-sharing teachers to work additional days to cover vacancies in their own and other schools, as well as a further relaxation on restrictions on career break teachers carrying out sub work.
The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) welcomed the additional measures, which had been negotiated.
While the new measures bring a certain relief, education stakeholders are adopting a “wait and see” approach.
The department says that it will continue to keep the matter under review in collaboration with the stakeholders.