Two school principals have told how they are facing an “absolute nightmare” because of staff shortages as they prepare for a second pandemic Christmas.
Adrian Walsh, of St Colm’s High School in Dunmurry, said he was having to send whole year groups home for one day a week just to manage.
He added: “We came in on Monday this week and I had five teachers and four other members of staff off.
“It’s been the same and worse all week. Today, I have seven teachers off and four other staff. That is an absolute nightmare to manage.
“On Monday, I had to contact the board of governors and agree that we would suspend Year 13 and 14 classes to allow us to cover junior classes for the day.”
The school is back to blended learning, with all year groups studying from home one day a week.
“We have to do that until further notice until I know my staff are back,” Mr Walsh said.
“There are no substitute teachers available. The Northern Ireland Substitute Teacher Register is there to call, but you can phone all day and nobody gets back to you. When you finally get someone, they tell you they’re already working, so it’s a waste of time.”
Asked if schools were getting enough guidance from the Department of Education, he replied: “We were told we could come back and remove our bubble system. In terms of guidance, there really isn’t any. They’re leaving that to schools to deal with themselves.”
Alison Steen, the head of Drumrane Primary School, near Limavady, and the president of the Ulster Teachers’ Union, said she had similar problems.
She agreed it was “very difficult” to get substitute teachers and said all schools had been forced to consider cancelling mass gatherings to keep students and staff safe.
Ms Steen stressed that a return to remote learning before Christmas was the last thing anyone wanted.
“We want to keep children in school if at all possible. I know of principals who are ringing a hundred subs in an evening to try and get cover for the next day, so they really are trying to keep classes open,” she said.
Teaching unions have called on Education Minister Education Minister Michelle McIlveen to immediately publish guidance on keeping the transmission of Covid under control.
The Irish Congress of Trade Unions, which represents teaching and support staff unions, urged the minister to cancel all Christmas shows, assemblies and parent-teacher nights.
The Department of Education said it was aware schools had been facing extra pressure during the pandemic.
It added that were “currently no plans to return to remote learning across all schools”.
A spokesperson for the department said the Executive’s response to the Covid crisis was based on medical and scientific advice. They added: “The department is aware of the ongoing difficulties faced by some schools in securing appropriate cover as a result of staff absence, and acknowledges that individual schools may need to consider a short period of remote learning for a class or classes, in response to local circumstances.
“There are currently no plans for any school circuit breakers. Any decision to do so would be taken by the Executive and would be based on medical and scientific advice.”