Schools return amid high level of staff absences

Schools across the county re-opened today after the Christmas break, with many schools facing challenges to cover classes amid staff absences due to Covid.

Many teachers were unable to return to the classroom, whether due to testing positive themselves or being close contacts and this has put pressure on school principals to find substitute cover. However, some schools reported that they were able to re-open with their full complement of staff.

St Mary's NS in Enfield had nine teachers and two Special Needs Assistants (SNAs) absent today, mostly due to being close contacts. Principal Enda Flynn said they managed to get five substitute teachers in to cover, after two days of searching. This meant all mainstream classes have been covered but they weren't able to get sub cover for their special education teachers.

"Today we were able to manage but it is a challenge and I'm not sure the Department realises how difficult it is to manage a school at this time," said Mr Flynn.

While Mr Flynn said teachers don't want to go back to remote learning, he feels it would have been prudent to have moved online for two weeks until the peak of Omicron had passed rather than risk is spreading more through the community.

Brian Mullins, principal of Kilmessan NS, said they had three staff out today, and managed to get cover for one, after trying every substitute teacher on his list. He was unable to get cover for their learning support teaching roles but was able to cover all mainstream classes.

"We are facing into a period where there could be a lot of absences so it will be all hands to the pump," he said adding that he expects it to be a huge challenge for schools week to week.

Jacqueline Maher, Principal of Scoil Mhuire Trim said the school community is working closely together to support each other but it is challenging with around 15-20 per cent of staff absent today.

She said: "All our staff are pulling together and supporting one another and supporting students. We have about 15-20 per cent of our staff out. People are taking their responsibilities very seriously. Everyone wants to be in school but if they have symptoms or are close contacts they cant come in.

"We are working hard to make sure all our students are being taught despite the high absenteeism in these unprecedented times."

Shane Foley, principal of Enfield Community College said they were lucky that as a new school they have a full complement of teachers and there was only one staff absence today.

"We are fortunate in that we are able to run the entire curriculum today," he said.

"There has also been excellent attendance by students, but some parents kept children at home because of fears where there were compromised adults at home."

In Castletown NS, Principal Brien Kearns said they were lucky to have a "full quota" with all six of their teachers in school today and that most pupils were in school though they had some absences.

He said they were happy enough to be back and he didn't think anyone wanted to go back to remote learning, adding that they were hoping they will see the benefit of the HEPA filters they installed before Christmas that the parents association fundraiser for but it was too soon to say yet.

Meanwhile, the Irish Second Level Students Union (ISSU) has expressed its concern that the return to school has been rushed and has hit out at the lack of consultation with students themselves. In a statement, the ISSU said that announcing a full reopening of schools, with a two-day notice, was rushing school leaders to put in adequate risk-mitigation measures to ensure a safe return for students."

Eva Grace, regional ISSU officer for Louth-Meath said: "The Department has also failed to address the difficulties of staff-shortages or student absenteeism. This means that not every student will be receiving the same standard of education, and this is an incredibly unfair outcome, especially for exam year students."

If any principals or teachers would like to share their experiences or challenges around re-opening today, please email