Department of Education blames Covid for the situation
Education Minister Michelle McIlveen has been urged to advise schools on the steps they need to take when schools cannot be staffed due to Covid.
The Northern Ireland Teachers’ Council (NITC) said some schools are having to send pupils home as there are no teachers available to teach them.
The NITC has called on the Department of Education and the Public Health Agency to publish any evidence that supports their position that schools remain safe.
Justin McCamphill, secretary of the NITC and NASUWT national official for Northern Ireland, said there was growing concern that the levels of Covid cases plus better pay and conditions outside Northern Ireland are combining to cause staff shortages.
“NITC is alarmed that the levels of Covid in schools have contributed significantly to schools being unable to source enough substitute teachers,” he said.
“This is not the only contributing factor, many newly qualified teachers have sought work outside of Northern Ireland where there is better pay and conditions of employment.
“The NITC is particularly concerned with the situation in our special schools. Just yesterday the Education Authority sent an email to all substitute teachers appealing for teachers to make themselves available for work in special schools.
“This is unprecedented and highlights the seriousness of the problem.”
Mr McCamphill said some mainstream schools are having to send pupils home as there are no teachers available to teach them
“Clearly something is going wrong and the sticking the head in the sand approach of DE and PHA is not working,” he said.
The Council has urged the Department and the PHA to urgently publish any evidence they have that supports their position that schools are safe.
“The Minister needs to send a clear message to schools that health and safety must come first and that if pupils cannot be accommodated within existing regulations on class size and teacher cover, that principals will be supported when they send classes home,” he added.
Earlier this week, the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation revealed the incidence of Covid-19 in the 5-19 age group is running at 43% of new cases each day.
“Teachers, who are being struck down with Covid-19 are consistently told by the DE and PHA they are at no higher risk or infection than other professions,” said INTO chairperson, Marie O’Shea.
“We find this frankly unbelievable and we challenge these two bodies to produce evidence based on current data to support their stated position. There is ample evidence, we believe, that the current substitute teacher shortage is in large part the result of an up surge in the numbers of teachers being absent on foot of Covid-19 infections.
“INTO can report with confidence that schools across the north are experiencing severe difficulties in locating and employing temporary teachers.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Education noted that Covid-19 has created “an unusually high demand for substitute teachers” this year.
“It is inevitable that there will continue to be cases of Covid-19 in schools - this reflects transmission in the wider community,” they said.
"Schools have a range of mitigations available to reduce the risk of transmission in the school environment and the PHA continue to provide advice to schools which require specialist public health advice on the management of multiple cases and clusters.
They added that “everyone has a role to play in ensuring that hygiene, social distancing and all other public health measures continue to be followed.”
“The Department is aware of the difficulties that principals are experiencing in securing substitute teachers through NISTR [the online booking facility for all substitute teachers in Northern Ireland], often contacting many to find that they are unavailable to work.
“NISTR is a user-maintained database and substitute teachers and schools engaging them need to update the system regularly and the EA, which manages NISTR, has reminded users of the importance of doing so.
The department said that it has launched a range of new initiatives, “such as the Engage Programme and our summer schools programme, to provide additional support to those pupils whose education has been most disrupted by the pandemic”.
They concluded: “These have provided extra employment opportunities for substitute teachers but have also reduced the number available to provide day to day cover in schools.”