Principal of Saint Ronans primary school Newry Kevin Donaghy has drawn attention to the somewhat stark reality that owing to the chronic shortage of substitute teachers currently available to cover Covid 19 related staff absences in schools they “may have to send classes home.”
“Right now, there exists a staffing crisis because of the absences caused by the Coronavirus and owing to the shortage of available substitute teachers to cover staff who are absent because of Covid, we may at some point have to send classes home. I also do know of a number of local schools where children have been asked to stay at home because there is no available cover.
“We have written out to our parents and we have told them that we are finding it extremely difficult to bring substitute teachers onboard to cover staff absences and should the case arise, we may have to ask a class to stay at home. Thankfully so far, we have not had to do this, but we have at times come close to doing it.
“For example, we were recently at a point where we have had three members of staff of and if we had a fourth member of teaching staff of, we would not have been able to find cover for a class and we would have had to send children home. This is because there exists a legal requirement to have a qualified teacher in the class at all times and there are only three of us in St Ronan's who can cover a class in the event of a teacher absence.
“The problem is that there are simply no substitute teachers out there to cover classes. For example, my secretary has had to on more than one occasion calls over 60 people to try and find a substitute teacher to cover a class and no one is available. There have also been occasions where we have had a substitute teacher booked to come into school for one or two days and we then get a phone call from that substitute teacher to inform us that they have been given a week of work with another school and they would no longer be available. We have then been left with nobody to cover a staff absence.
Mr Donaghy is of the belief that the problem of a lack of substitute teachers is only further exacerbated in primary schools because of the fact that post-primary schools have more staff available to cover absent teachers as well as the fact that many posts primary schools are also “block booking” substitute teachers, leaving primary schools with no options for cover.
“Another problem we have is that we have large post-primary schools who are block booking secondary school teachers because they know they are going to need them. So, whenever we go looking for substitute teachers there aren't any there.
“ Not only that but the situation is even harder for primary schools smaller than St Ronan's that may have a teaching principal and may not even have a Vice Principal. I have known a lot of my colleagues who are teaching principals who, despite being sick in bed with Covid-19 are still trying to get substitute teachers to cover classes.”
Mr Donaghy has thought of a number of potential actions that could be taken to help bolster the number of substitute teachers in the system such as allowing school inspectors, most of whom would be qualified to cover classes in primary school, to be recruited in to help alleviate the problem. This is a point that he raised to the Education minister Michelle McIlveen in a recent visit she paid to St Ronan’s.
“I would support anyone with a teaching qualification to come forward and help address the shortage of available substitute teachers. It is a matter of looking within the system and seeing how many people are qualified and could do the job on a short-term basis. This is a point I raised with the Education minister Michelle McIlveen in a visit that she recently paid to a primary two class here in Saint Ronan's.
“I explained to the minister that she already has one-hundred teachers that she can redirect to work as a substitute teacher. Every school inspector is a teacher, and there are also a number of teachers working for the Education Authority. She could ask every one of them that where there exists is a shortage of staff or substitute teachers to go and support the schools that need them.”
While Mr Donaghy also welcomes the recent suggestion made by the director of the NAHT Helena McCormac to expand the register of available substitute teachers by allowing recently retired teachers to be recruited back into the system, he does draw attention to the fact that there does exist some issues with asking retired teachers to come back.
“Whilst I do entirely welcome the suggestion made by the Director of the NAHT to the Department of Education, I also do acknowledge the fact that there exist some issues with asking retired teachers to come back,” said Mr Donaghy.
“First of all, they can only work so many days before there exist issues with their pension, and the Department of Education will only fund them up to a certain level.
“You cannot ask a retired teacher to come in and work for a lower rate than what they were earning whenever they were working full-time. So, what could happen here is that the Department of Education will pay for a portion of the teachers wages and then the school is asked to supplement it.
“Furthermore , I do not think we should be asking fourth year BA students to come out of University and start early because they are still students and I do think we should look at other potential solution before we consider recruiting student teachers to help alleviate the problem.”
In conclusion Mr Donaghy would like to reiterate his point about both schools and the Department of Education adopting as a pragmatic an approach as possible in dealing with the ongoing challenges caused by Coronavirus, citing the fact that the decision makers should consult with school leaders when making contingency plans well in advance and inform schools leaders ahead of time of what these proposed plans will be.
“As the cases of Coronavirus begin to rise in schools the situation needs to be monitored closely and carefully..
“We need to be as pragmatic about this as possible. Those who are the decision makers need to be making contingency plans and consulting with school leaders when constructing these contingency plans and making the school leaders aware of what it is they intend to do well in advance.”