Principal struggles as staff absences add to pressure as 24pc of children also out
Outside Harold’s Cross National School this morning, parents were dropping their children into lines and thankful that the classrooms are open again.
It was a busy morning at the school which teaches 401 boys and girls, and parents braved the dirty blustery wet winter dawn to get their kids back to education after days of uncertainty about opening caused by the rapid spread of Covid over the Christmas period.
“Every day has been different, and we’ve been watching the news closely like everybody else. It seemed to be touch-and-go on Tuesday but now we’re here. I think everybody is happy to be in,” said Ciaran Hopkins as he dropped off his son Bob (8).
Asked if he was worried staff shortages may threaten the school to close, he said it was on his mind.
“If Ms Kehoe [the principal] couldn’t get the staff in, she wouldn’t be able to run the school and we’d be online again. Even up until last night we were waiting to see if there would be a text that something had changed. If the school had to close it would change the dynamics for many people. We’re working from home so it’s not too bad,” he added.
Rodi Dascalu said bringing her two children back to school was a risk but she had no choice. “I’m glad they opened. We are starting work again and it’s really hard to keep the children at home,” she said.
Amanda Lynch was waving Zoe Canning (7) off, and said she was happy the schools were open too.
“I was a bit worried they wouldn’t open but listening to the news over the past few days, I knew they weren’t going to do what they did last year. It was too tough on the kids and the parents. The past two years have been difficult for my daughter, and I’ve a child in secondary school as well. If the schools didn’t open, I’d have to change my hours, but I’m lucky because my employers are flexible,” she said.
For Barbara McMorris it was also a relief that the schools opened again today. “It would be difficult if they didn’t open because we both work from home. Trying to keep kids occupied is a bit of a problem,” she told Independent.ie.
Principal Bernadette Kehoe said she dreads the phone ringing or getting an email for fear it will be news of another teacher not able to come to work.
Figures this morning showed that 24pc of pupils did not attend today.
"I didn't think it would be that high, but I'm seeing five, six, and seven absent from some classes. Parents are being very cautious," Ms Kehoe said.
"We expect that by Monday we will have higher numbers attending, but I was surprised that today's numbers not attending was as high as it is.”
Ms Keogh said staff absences were an issue as the doors reopened.
“I have 26 teachers, five SNAs and five ancillary staff, but I’m down three classroom teachers, our caretaker, and a member of the hygiene staff,” she said.
“A number of other staff got Covid over Christmas and luckily they are back today, otherwise I would be down six teachers.
“The last few days have been pretty hectic. I started getting emails from members of staff last week saying that they had been in close contact or that they had Covid, so they wouldn’t be returning to school today. Since then, I've been trying to access substitutes. So I've exhausted every avenue and I've only managed to get one, and she is a student teacher.
“That’s three classes affected, so what I’ve had to do is allocate two members of my SEN [special education needs] team to go in and teach in those classes, so that means our most vulnerable children will not have support over the next two days and next week possibly, because I don’t know exactly when those teachers will be back.
“Those two teachers would usually be working during the day with about 20 children each. They would work in small groups or in one-to-one groups. One of them is our EAL [English as an additional language] teacher for international children. And then some of them will be working with children who have behavioural needs or are on the spectrum. A lot of these pupils need structure and routine, they need to have the same person. And this will set them back hugely because the special needs teachers have a very special relationship with these children,” she added.
“And then my caretaker is out so that means myself and my deputy, we've to come in at half six to open all the doors. He does all the sanitisation, all of the hand soaps, wipes down the doors during the break, sanitises the doors and the banisters. He puts out the bins. So I'm going to have to do that for the next two weeks. And then a member of the hygiene team is out as well, so that's one third of the school with nobody to clean, so two members of staff are going to have to step up and take that on.”
“I made about 50 phone calls. There’s 15 schools in our panel group, and there’s supposed to be five teachers available to cover those 15 schools. However, we couldn't get teachers to fill those positions.
Ms Kehoe said finding the one substitute teacher she was able to secure was very difficult.
“I made about 50 phone calls. There’s 15 schools in our panel group, and there’s supposed to be five teachers available to cover those 15 schools. However, we couldn't get teachers to fill those positions. So when the minister says that all of these people are available, they're not. So we only have two people to cover 15 schools, and one of those is out with Covid now. So that panel system is not working, because you can't get teachers. I have a position to fill and I can't fill it.”
“That's the reality on the ground, unfortunately. I know I'm not the only principal in that situation, where we can't fill positions. I have somebody going on maternity leave today and I was so lucky to get somebody to fill that position.”
Ms Kehoe said she has really good staff who have been very supportive. “I emailed them all yesterday and said it’s going to be all hands on deck and they are ready to step up. They are a really committed group of people,” she said.
She said opening next Monday might have been a better option, because more pupils would have been ready to return by then.
“I received a huge number of emails yesterday from parents saying that their children were close contacts, or that they had had Covid over Christmas, and that they will be ready to return to school on Monday. I'm delighted we're back for the majority of the children. I think that's where they need to be, in school. Everybody's coming back on Monday, so I think that extra two days would have been just a little bit more of a break,” she said.
Harold’s Cross National School has air filters in two thirds of the classrooms and air monitors in the remainder, but children will be taught with windows open to help with ventilation.