Principals unable to fill staffing gaps as more than 1,000 teachers test positive for Covid in the last four weeks
More than a fifth of schools have had to close a class due to staff illness since half-term, the National Association of Head Teachers has revealed.
The union has been working with principals to assess the scale of the problem, with 1,072 teachers absent after a positive Covid test in the last four weeks and schools unable to find substitute staff to plug the gaps.
Figures don’t include those off as a close contact, looking after children or through other illness.
A survey of head teachers has shown over 10% of schools here have had to close entirely since the half-term break.
NAHT president Graham Gault said further temporary class closures were inevitable as principals had been left with nowhere else to turn to as the pressure mounts on schools trying to remain open.
Now another union, the NASUWT, has said a circuit breaker closure of schools before Christmas should be considered to avert a looming crisis.
The Department of Education says it is liaising with the Department of Health over how best to support schools.
The survey received 162 responses from principals, with 84% saying they have had five or more Covid cases in one class or year group.
Since the start of the academic year, 88% said they have had to teach classes to cover for absent staff, and 80% said they have had to supervise pupils to cover for absent classroom assistants.
Mr Gault said the number of staff who had contracted Covid-19 did not even come close to the number of staff who have had to take time away as a result of the virus.
“Staff are absent through contracting the illness, isolating because of close contact with a positive case, or caring for children who have been affected,” he explained.
“The very high level of Covid-related absence, compounded by the stark unavailability of substitute staff, has left school leaders with nowhere to turn in trying to maintain safe staffing levels in schools.
“It is, therefore, inevitable that we will see more and more instances of schools having to make temporary, short-term closures for cohorts of children until safe staffing levels can be regained.
“Our principals cannot perform miracles.”
The NASUWT wants a circuit breaker to be put on the table.
“Schools cannot deliver if they do not have the teachers and the situation is only going to get worse over the coming weeks,” said official Justin McCamphill.
“There is no plan and it looks like history is repeating itself.
“Last year we were told there were no plans to close schools. Then they closed in January.
“We’ve already got to a situation where it’s spiralling out of control.
“We need the minister to use her powers and direct schools in what they should be doing. Every school is being left to make its own decisions.”
Liam McGuckin, principal of Greenisland Primary School, said: “Last week was the worst yet for outbreaks.
“I had to close three classes before Halloween to carry out deep cleans after pupils tested positive.
“The worry is that new cases among teaching and support staff could severely impact on classrooms staying open due to a chronic lack of substitute teachers.
“I phoned 74 substitute teachers on Tuesday, but no one was available.”
The Department of Education said there were no immediate plans for a circuit breaker closure, though it indicated a partial return to remote learning was an option.
“Schools have a range of mitigations available to reduce the risk of transmission in the school environment and the Public Health Agency continues to provide advice as required to schools on the management of multiple cases and clusters,” it said.
“We are actively considering how best to support schools in responding to the issues they currently face and are liaising with Department of Health colleagues while continuing to follow medical and scientific advice.”