The chronic loss of tuition hours and the lack of substitute teachers is causing huge anxiety for school principals all over Ireland.
Unclear messaging from the Government and a general sense that the withdrawal of contact tracing in schools was premature adds to the burden of principals battling to keep schools open in unprecedented times.
Michael Byrne, principal of Citywest and Saggart Community National School, feels he has been “abandoned by the department and the Minister for Education.”
He said: “As disruptive as contact tracing was, and I understand that as a parent, to take away all of that in one go was very unwise.
“There is a middle ground that could be struck so that children wouldn’t be out of school for extended periods but also have some input from the HSE in terms of contact tracing.
“I know my colleagues locally feel the same. It seemed like public health just pulled their resources out of education.”
A recurring theme among four principals who spoke to the Irish Independent is the lack of substitute teachers.
“The thing that is keeping me awake at night and gives me the fear every morning is not knowing what teacher or SNA is going to call me and say they can’t come in,” Mr Byrne said.
“The measures in place for subs are not working. Nobody even replies to requests for subs. We have lost well over 100 tuition days this year over absences. Some children are missing out massively.
“And teachers are feeling guilty, and the first thing they say is ‘I am sorry’, no person should ever have to apologise for being ill. This has been going on for years. This sub crisis has been exacerbated by Covid but not caused by it.”
Kenneth Dennedy is the principal of Scoil Íosa, in Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo, a primary school with 372 pupils and 35 staff, including teachers, SNAs and ancillary staff.
“There is certainly a high-stress factor for the school principals and staff now. The lack of explicit information and contradictory messages coming mainly from Nphet are feeding that.
“Schools by nature are a planning environment, and as far as we can see, there is no clear plan.
“I understand it is an evolving situation regarding the virus, but it has been with us now for nearly two years.”
He said schools struggle with uncertainty, and it plays hell with kids.
“So you have to try and shield them from the worry.
“The very idea that learning from home would ever happen again should be a non-runner. We have to live with this virus.
“We have approximately 400 people accessing this building without counting parents. I am not aware of one case of Covid in our school. I’m not saying there isn’t, but I am not aware of any.”
Mr Dennedy said everybody is coming in and doing their jobs.
“I genuinely can’t understand the angle taken by some of the representative groups.
“They are complaining about spiralling numbers, but you have to look at the system of contact tracing operation that was there previously. It was a cumbersome process. Families were going three and four days without even being contacted by the HSE.
“I’ve looked closely at the latest advice on antigen testing in schools, and it also seems impractical. We would be better off if schools distributed antigen tests, it would be much more efficient than waiting days for them to be delivered.”
He added it it doesn’t “inspire confidence” in the health experts when the decisions taken at a high level are impractical on the ground.
Aaron Wolfe, the principal of Coláiste Eamann Rís, a secondary school in Cork city, said his biggest problem currently is managing the anxiety of staff and students.
“Today, I started the day with a Covid notification, and I ended the day with another one. It is rampant at the moment.
“The level of anxiety out there at the moment is enormous. People are terrified, and while we are committed to keeping schools open, it should only be while it is safe to do so.
“They are saying schools are safe, but that’s only for as long as the community is safe.
“You could be vaccinated and doing everything right, but then you are sitting beside someone who is not.”
He added there is a huge worry there that schools will close.
“If we do have to close, I don’t think it’s the end of the world; we have resources in place. But it would be a disaster if a decision was made at short notice.
“We haven’t yet been hit by staff having Covid, but we have had a lot of absenteeism where teachers have to stay away when they have minor illnesses like sinus infections.
“Illnesses that you would typically come to work with now you have to stay at home. It is impossible to get replacement teachers; they are just not there.”
Shane Hallahan, principal of the Presentation Secondary School, Kilkenny, agrees his biggest concern is the loss of tuition hours.
“We appreciate it is a very difficult situation for the Government because it is changing.
“On a local level, the five-day directive (where a close contact must isolate until they have completed three negative antigen tests over five days) has put us under a lot of pressure.
“We have more and more teachers out because they have contracted Covid or they are close contacts.
“You can’t get subs. And that is very frustrating for students and their parents.
“It would be great if we got clear direction so all schools would be following the same rules. For example, parent-teacher meetings. Should we go online or face-to-face?
“I think schools, in general, have done an excellent job, and we are redoubling our efforts now.”