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Principals warn that whole classes could be sent home over substitutes shortage

Primary schools will be forced to send classes home if difficulties finding substitute cover are not resolved quickly, a principals’ leader has warned.

Páiric Clerkin, the CEO of the Irish Primary Principals’ Network (IPPN), described the issue of substitute supply as “very, very serious”.

Education Minister Norma Foley insisted last week it was not a major problem, but an IPPN survey of 700 school principals – 25pc of primary schools – paints a different picture.

The issue has come to a head since the Department of Education withdrew an emergency measure allowing special education teachers (SET) to stand in for short-term absences of mainstream class teachers.

The measure was introduced in 2020 as a response to challenges filling staff gaps created by Covid-related absences. While not a desirable practice, it was seen as a last resort and a pragmatic response. Schools were allowed to ‘bank’ the hours lost to special education and give that tuition time back to pupils with additional needs later in the year.

The measure was withdrawn in a department circular of September 27, which stated that because of the high level of vaccinations, teacher absences due to Covid-19 should be reduced and there was no need to use non-mainstream class teachers as subs and no need to “bank” hours.

The circular refers schools to potential sources of subs but principals report spending hours trying to fill a gap in staffing, often to no avail.

Prior to Covid, where a teacher was absent, principals had the option of splitting pupils into other classes, but that is not allowed under current public health restrictions.

Despite the vaccination roll-out, an IPPN survey shows a huge dependence by schools on the use of SETs subs since the term began. Almost nine in 10 schools (89pc) said they had redeployed an SET to cover the absence of a mainstream teacher. In 20pc of those cases, it was for more than 10 days.

Mr Clerkin said there was a “critical shortage” of substitutes, and “the problem has come about as a result of the circular”. While there were high levels of vaccination, Mr Clerkin said people were being told not to go to work if they had flu-like symptoms and if they were awaiting a test result they could not go back

He acknowledged the supports in place, including substitute teacher panels covering 2,500 primary schools “but even if a school is covered by a panel, most of those schools, if they go looking for something tonight for tomorrow, they won’t get anyone”.

He said while schools could use SETs for substitute cover, he was not aware of any situation where a school had to send classes home, but “the removal of the banked hours facility could result in schools having no other option.

“Boards of management will end up doing what no board wants to do and that is sending a class home. They have to stand over health and safety and that the school is a safe place; if you don’t have supervision, that is serious issue.”

While the minister downplayed the scale of the problem last week, a department spokesperson said officials from the Teaching Council and the department would meet primary teacher training providers this week to explore course “flexibilities” that would allow greater use of student teachers in schools.

The Teaching Council has also emailed more than 110,000 registered teachers asking any who may be available to come forward.

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