ST RONAN’S Primary School Principal Kevin Donaghy says his school is under "enormous pressure" as covid numbers are "sky rocketing."
Sitting down with Mr Donaghy I asked him how the school was coping with teaching being back in full swing, to which he replied: "It's a disaster, due to the increasing numbers of CV19 positive cases, the lack of cover for sick teachers and support staff and the lack of clear meaningful advice and support from DE and EA" The only beacon of light is having the children in school and seeing their smiles and enjoying school.
Mr Donaghy said that this has been the worst period the school has seen in regards to Covid case numbers, since the pandemic began. The new Omicron CV19 variant is extremely infectious and transmissible. Some children are now testing positive twice. We don’t have the luxury of saying just because you have had it once, you won’t get it again.
"This week I am down four teachers and eight classroom assistants, two classes had to be moved to remote home learning for a few days. We simply cannot find supply cover.
"The Education Authority (EA) and the Public Health Agency (PHA) sent out an email to all schools on Monday, Jan 24, to tell them that they are now handing back track and trace to schools as they were overwhelmed by the numbers. PHA had taken over track and trace responsibilities from schools in Sept 2021, the experience of many school leaders was that they were never contacted by PHA nor did they class children or adults in schools to be a close contact.
"The Department of Education has still not come up with solutions for substitute cover for when teachers are off sick or have tested CV 19 positive. We are in the middle of a staffing crisis, there are simply no supply teachers available. Many schools are having to move children to Remote Home Learning due to this.
The numbers of CV19 positives are sky rocketing. Prior to Christmas I had 65 positive cases in the schools (September to December). From our return to school we have had over 100 this month – pupils and staff.
"The letter that came from the EA and the PHA stated that they don't think peak is going to hit schools for a few more weeks. As a school we are implementing all necessary mitigations, including ventilation, handwashing etc and staff are wearing masks in a bid to reduce any form of transmission. Primary school children do not wear masks and as a school we don’t have social distancing. These would go against the ethos of our school.”
Since covid started in 2019, Mr Donaghy believes this is the highest number of cases his school has had in the past three months.
"Never in the two years that this pandemic has been on going have we had such a high number. There was an article released by the BBC stating nine percent of teachers and 11 percent of classroom assistants were absent from school due to Covid19.
“Now, I know these numbers have been under reported because when I sat down at 4.05pm on Monday to do our returns the system had shut down, also many schools simply do not report these to DE as they haven’t the time to fill in daily statistical returns – they are too busy trying to manage an extremely difficult situation. Having been a teaching Principal, I have a lot of sympathy for my teaching Principal colleagues who are trying this situation, find simply cover, run a school and teach a class. Many are mentally and physically exhausted.
“I was curious to know if staff were returning to the school sooner as the isolation period for people with Covid has decreased to five days.
"No, because a lot of our staff are still testing positive on day seven and day eight. I don't know why they have changed it by a day.”
I then asked if they have had any additional resources to help with the current situation:
"The simple answer is no.”
“We have had no additional resource and this coupled with the lack of clear updated advice is making school life difficult. We have simply been told to open the windows and keep the heat on. We have done all we can to minimize risk.”
“There is nobody from the EA or the PHA turning around saying this is what you should and need to be doing. Both organisations are there to support schools – many school leaders feel abandoned.
“No-one about PHA handing back track and trace to schools until the email hit on Monday morning. As school leaders we are not consulted and mainly find out what is happening either via Social Media or TV news.
I then asked Mr Donaghy if he has any say in making the decision to close the school again:
"Closing a class or the school is done based on risk assessment of pupil and staff safety. A number of factors have to be taken into account including the cleaning of the school and available staff. It becomes completely unmanageable, if the vast majority of your permanent staff are out sick.
“You can’t run a school on supply staff they don’t the school, school policies especially those relating to Child Protection.
“There are also issues relating to school cleaning etc, if you don’t have the staff to clean the school, you can’t ask children to come to an unclean school. I have been made aware of a couple of schools that have had to close due to lack of cleaning staff. They exhausted every avenue, including going to EA and asking for support. No head wants to close, we know the impact that this has on families and children. But if you can’t find cover and of the organization that is there to support you (EA)isn’t supporting or helping you, you are left to making extremely difficult choices.
“I would ask that all parents please remember this. To close the school is the last resort.”
" The best place for children is school. We don’t want to be forced to close. The problem is EA and PHA fail to consult and to listen to those at the chalk face.
“The Department of Education will say that they do consult the DE principals reference group but this group met once in the 12 weeks before Christmas”
"It is becoming more difficult to stay open especially if you are down a secretary, caretaker, teachers and support staff. These are key people. Without them schools can’t operate. I do think that school staff have gone unnoticed during this difficult period. I would like to say a massive thank you to my staff (and to staff in other schools) for doing all they can to overcome the challenges thrown at them on a daily basis.
“They truly are unsung heros – as the saying goes not every superhero wears a cape and this is true for those who work in schools, providing our children with a warm, safe and secure learning environment.
“ Thank you for your hard work and dedication.”