Covid in schools: ‘What we are in now is an absolute emergency’

Covid in schools: ‘What we are in now is an absolute emergency’

Schools are open and operating, but they face massive challenges in the weeks ahead.

The public health strategy relies heavily on anyone with cold or flu symptoms staying at home, and pupils can no longer be split up and sent to other classrooms if their teacher is out. 

Given the current daily case numbers, and the introduction of the five-day rule for household contacts, the likelihood is that we will start to see more classes sent home as schools struggle to source cover for teachers who are sick or isolating.

Issues with sourcing substitute teachers at primary level have not arisen simply due to Covid, according to Seamus O’Connor, principal of Scoil Bhríde, a primary school in Crosshaven, Co Cork. 

“This has been a major problem since 2016, and it’s only been exacerbated under the current situation now.” 

The Irish Examiner previously spoke to Mr O’Connor when the changes to contact tracing for under 12s were first announced in September. At the time, he warned the move would put pressure on schools. 

A number of steps have been taken in recent weeks to help alleviate the crisis, mainly adding an additional 100 posts to panels, which supply schools with substitute teachers. 

“Our school is part of a supply panel but the teachers are booked up for the next day and the day after,” Mr O’Connor said. 

“If you need a substitute in four to five weeks time, that’s possible to get, but for short-term immediate situations, if you need a substitute because a staff member is sick or feels they may have symptoms, it’s almost impossible.”

Schools are now seeing and reporting higher numbers of Covid-19 cases among students than in previous reopenings, according to Alan Ó Ceallaigh, principal of Carrigallen National School in Co Leitrim. 

This week, the incidence rate of Covid-19 among primary school-age children was recorded at 767.5 per 100,000 population.

“There was an element of frustration and shock when the contact tracing was removed in late September,” Mr Ó Ceallaigh said. 

“It seems to have had a negative impact on schools, and I think it could have been handled a lot better.

“On the ground, I just can’t get sub-teachers. I just cannot. Speaking to colleagues, it’s the same in schools up and down the country, whether it’s my school in Leitrim, or down in Cork, or up in Dublin. 

My fear and I really don’t want to see it happen, but it has happened in one or two schools already, is that classes have to stay home because they haven’t had enough staff to cover insurance or for health and safety. 

“My worry is keeping our doors open and keeping all our kids in school in a safe environment, and in a safe manner. 

“As a very short-term measure, maybe we can look at staff who are currently on secondment or working as part of the inspectorate providing substitute cover in our schools. What we are in now is an absolute emergency,” he added.

It’s a sentiment shared by Fiona Morley, principal of Clonburris National School, Clondalkin, Dublin. 

She has doubts about the new antigen testing programme to be introduced for close contacts of children in primary schools. 

As previously reported, Ms Morely spent the mid-term break contacting parents as 21 students tested positive for Covid-19. 

Under the new scheme, antigen tests will be sent to parents, if they wish, when their child is in close contact with

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