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School system on the ‘brink of collapse’ with 12,000 teachers out sick

Extra.ie logo Extra.ie 19/11/2021 Helen Bruce
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More than 12,000 teachers were out on sick leave last month, it can be revealed, as the Dáil was warned that the school system is on the ‘brink of collapse’.

Schools across the country are struggling to get substitute teachers as absentee rates soar and principals fear having to send pupils home.

Almost 66,000 days of sick leave were taken by teachers in October alone, compared with 40,251 in the same month pre-pandemic, in October 2019.

a group of people jumping in the air: More than 12,000 teachers were out on sick leave last month. Pic: Getty Images © Provided by Extra.ie More than 12,000 teachers were out on sick leave last month. Pic: Getty Images

Principals said that they are attributing the rising number of sick days and longer sick leave periods to illness, stress, burnout and teachers and their families getting COVID.

In an email, parents at Scoil Mhuire CBS in Marino, Dublin, were warned by principal Ben Dorney that their children could be sent home in alternating classes because of substitution shortages.

It comes as the president of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) Joe McKeown said on Thursday night that 8,600 primary school students were infected in the past two weeks, adding ‘we cannot overstate how grave the situation is’ in schools.

a group of people sitting at a table: Schools across the country are struggling to get substitute teachers as absentee rates soar and principals fear having to send pupils home. Pic: Getty Images © Provided by Extra.ie Schools across the country are struggling to get substitute teachers as absentee rates soar and principals fear having to send pupils home. Pic: Getty Images

Nineteen of those students are in hospital, he said, and a small number of them are in intensive care units.

‘Every day, delay in getting antigen testing and proper contact tracing means there’ll be another 600 or more children of primary school age with COVID,’ he said.

Unions have said the problem of teacher shortage extends across the country, with some of the larger primary schools having nine or ten teachers out of work.

a group of people looking at each other: Almost 66,000 days of sick leave were taken by teachers in October alone, compared with 40,251 in the same month pre-pandemic, in October 2019. Pic: Getty Images © Provided by Extra.ie Almost 66,000 days of sick leave were taken by teachers in October alone, compared with 40,251 in the same month pre-pandemic, in October 2019. Pic: Getty Images

A spokesman for the Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI) said: ‘Absences related to COVID-19 are putting the system under severe pressure, particularly at a time when case numbers on a national level are so high.’

The Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI) said ‘a massive effort’ was under way to keep schools operational ‘in the face of substantial difficulties’.

Figures obtained from the Department of Education show that for the entire month of October, a total of 10,713 teachers took 65,943 sick days.

a room with a wooden floor: Principals said that they are attributing the rising number of sick days and longer sick leave periods to illness, stress, burnout and teachers and their families getting COVID. Pic: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie © Provided by Extra.ie Principals said that they are attributing the rising number of sick days and longer sick leave periods to illness, stress, burnout and teachers and their families getting COVID. Pic: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

This compares with 9,871 teachers taking 40,251 sick days in October 2019 – a rise of 25,692 days.

With some 65,000 primary and secondary teachers in the country, the sick leave figures for last month account for nearly 20% of all staff. In addition, 1,507 teachers were off sick due to COVID and unable to work last month.

This included 997 teachers self-isolating and 510 off due to a diagnosis.

a group of people sitting at a table using a laptop: 8,600 primary school students were infected in the past two weeks. Pic: Getty Images © Provided by Extra.ie 8,600 primary school students were infected in the past two weeks. Pic: Getty Images

Two other cohorts were working from home – with 1,615 restricting their movements, and a further 128 deemed high-risk.

From the start of term up to October 19, figures obtained show that primary teachers took more than 6,000 days in extra personal vacation after attending approved summer courses.

In an email sent to parents this week, Scoil Mhuire CBS principal Mr Dorney said: ‘Our school is facing a crisis. Today we have four teachers absent and can only locate one sub. I will be taking a class for the full day as will the Deputy Principal. One of our Special Education Team will take the other class, thus depriving three classes of their rightful support.’

Mr Dorney questioned whether this was sustainable. He added: ‘I must prepare you for the worst and not spring any sudden surprises on you. There is every likelihood in the next number of days and weeks that I will have to notify parents of certain classes that they will have to remain at home due to no substitute cover being available. This may happen at short notice. Please be prepared.’

a woman standing in front of a crowd: The Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI) said ‘a massive effort’ was under way to keep schools operational ‘in the face of substantial difficulties’. Pic: Shutterstock © Provided by Extra.ie The Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI) said ‘a massive effort’ was under way to keep schools operational ‘in the face of substantial difficulties’. Pic: Shutterstock

Bernard Mulvany, who has a son at the school, said while he understood that the principal was ‘under pressure’, it felt like they were going ‘back to a lockdown situation again’.

Scoil Eoin Báiste in Co. Meath is among the latest to close a classroom with third and fourth class pupils asked to remain home yesterday as there was no teacher available to take their class.

Principal Anne-Marie McKenna told RTÉ News that she could not find substitute cover for two teachers who are absent this week despite many appeals. ‘We are just exhausted. There is no break. You are spending your weekends and evenings looking for subs’, she said.

Principal of Portlaoise Educate Together National School Sinéad Harte said that in November alone she has been unable to find a substitute teacher 22 times as full-time teachers are out due to COVID, burnout and their own children catching the virus.

Sinéad Harte failed to find cover 22 times this month. © Provided by Extra.ie Sinéad Harte failed to find cover 22 times this month.

Although Ms Harte’s school has brought in retired and trainee teachers to work as substitutes, she still worries about having to send pupils to learn from home. She said: ‘Our priority is to keep children in school and do that safely. But we have no other choice to do it except by moving teachers who would have been elsewhere.’

And Ms Harte accused Education Minister Norma Foley of ‘gaslighting’ teachers when she suggested the teacher shortage was not a major problem, adding that ‘every school is feeling the crisis point’.

On Thursday night, Ms Foley insisted that the Government is working on tackling the lack of substitute teachers and acknowledged there are ‘challenges’.

In a statement, the Department of Education said 100 additional teachers have been placed on substitution panels to facilitate the recruitment of extra staff.

a close up of a boy: Norma Foley insisted that the Government is working on tackling the lack of substitute teachers and acknowledged there are ‘challenges’. Pic: Gareth Chaney/Collins Photos © Provided by Extra.ie Norma Foley insisted that the Government is working on tackling the lack of substitute teachers and acknowledged there are ‘challenges’. Pic: Gareth Chaney/Collins Photos

The department also said that the Teaching Council has communicated with the 111,700 teachers on the register to urge those who can assist to make themselves available, while teachers and student teachers who are available have been asked to register on the website subseeker.ie.

‘Restrictions for job-sharing teachers undertaking substitution have been temporarily suspended which allows teachers to work additional days if available to cover vacancies. Likewise, teachers on career break can carry out substitute work,’ the statement read.

Minister Eamon Ryan said on Thursday the Government ‘recognises’ there is pressure on schools but he does not believe they will be forced to shut across the country.

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