A teacher is suddenly ill and principal Bryan Collins posts a message on a WhatsApp group looking for a sub. “I hold my breath hoping someone can help,” he says.
He might be lucky, but often he is not, and it means pulling a special education teacher away from their core duties to take a class or stepping in himself to fill the gap. Either option creates another problem.
The principal of the 287-pupil Scoil Feichín primary school in Termonfeckin, Co Louth, tells a familiar story, particularly along the east coast, which is worst hit by a lack of teachers.
In his 22 years in the role, Mr Collins has never experienced anything like the current shortages.
There are two issues: schools not having the full quota of staff – fixed-term and long-term vacancies not being filled; and being unable to find subs to cover short-term absences.
“The sub crisis is not new,” Mr Collins said. “For the last five, six or seven years we have been struggling to get subs, but I never thought I would see the day there would be no applications for fixed-term positions.”
Mr Collins can list at least 30 schools across Louth, east Meath and north Co Dublin with jobs going-begging.
There have been no applicants for as many as 30 posts, some of which are for 12-month contracts, while some schools report filling gaps with unqualified staff.
A few years ago, the Department of Education agreed to fund supply panels of teachers to give clusters of schools ready access to a sub at short notice, and most areas now have a panel. It looked like they were the solution, but they have provided only limited cover.
“The panels are fantastic and are working well all over the country, apart from one major problem – many panels are understaffed and some have absolutely no teachers on them,” Mr Collins said.
He cited two panels in his area with no teachers on them and another with only three of eight posts filled.
The demand on staffed panels can be so great they are quickly exhausted and schools have to look elsewhere, often in vain.
Mr Collins and other principals are scrambling every week, maybe even every day, to plug classroom gaps.
He considers himself lucky with the panel in his area, which serves 19 schools in rural Louth and east Meath and has its full staffing complement of seven.
But they are booked well ahead. “If you knew three or four weeks in advance, you could book a supply panel teacher, but if I have someone out tomorrow and I need a sub, there is not a chance of getting one from the panel.”
That is when he resorts to a WhatsApp group, or whatever contacts he has across a broader leadership support network in the north-east to which he is linked.
If that yields nothing, he faces difficult choices, such as redeploying a special education teacher.
“No principal takes this decision lightly as we are all acutely aware of the obvious implications for continuity of provision to pupils with additional needs,” Mr Collins said.
An alternative is to split the class, “but this is clearly not ideal”.
The third option for a school with an administrative principal is that the principal takes over the class, “but due to the very heavy workload related to the role of principal, the solution often creates more problems than it solves”.