Schools ‘challenged’ by absenteeism

The high rates of infection by the Covid Omicron variant is impacting significantly on workplace absentees and posing problems for those managing health and education sectors.

One Cavan school reported as many as one in three students absent from the classroom at the close of last week.

Despite concerns over staffing and rising infection levels, the Department of Education directed that, following public health advice, schools would reopen as planned last Thursday. Minister Norma Foley spoke of measures in place to support schools and provide specific advice to those experiencing difficulties.

Schools are advised to make direct contact with the Department for support in making the best decisions possible and maximising capacity for students attending school.

Mary McGovern is the principal at St Felim’s NS in Cavan Town. The school has only resumed a few days, yet there’s a marked increase in the number of students absent: “It goes in waves since Christmas. We have noted that figures have been fluctuating since the pupils returned. It rose to a peak of almost 30% absentees on Friday because of Covid.”

Pupils out sick is just one way the high number of infections hit schools. The St Felim’s NS principal says planning to cover the school curriculum in a balanced manner presents significant difficulty: “They have not looked at this issue in great detail, or perhaps it’s just a case that it’s not talked about very much.

“Obviously there’s a curriculum to be covered, this poses challenges when there may be six pupils out this week, then a different six absent next week. If a teacher has covered one part of the subject and wants to move on, that may not be practical because of the number of students missing. This causes similar problems with staff out sick.”

Mary says staff shortages have not hit St Felim’s yet: “I have been lucky, I have one staff member out with Covid from a staff of 23 teachers and three SNAs. I am very happy that’s the situation, but there is nothing to say that I couldn’t have six out at short notice tomorrow with positive antigen tests or being close contacts. It can be an absolute nightmare looking for substitute teachers.”

In the secondary school setting many issues presenting in primary education are replicated. Martha Lievens of Bailieborough Community School spoke of the difficulty the infections rates are causing: “It’s challenging, but we are managing. Attendances are lower than normal. It’s very early days, we will have to look at the pattern that emerges as the week progresses and will be in a better position to assess the true impact.”

Martha says some of the pressures of the current situation are being aided by the State: “There are supports put in place by the Department, the provisions for substitute teachers being one. We had teachers out on Thursday and Friday, as well as a significant number of students. It’s not for the faint hearted, that is for sure.”

Among the measures Minister Foley is to implement is the use of ‘non-classroom teachers’. This will engage special education teachers and English-language teaching supports in situations where a substitute teacher cannot be found.

The Department said the measure should only be used as a last resort. It will allow schools to bank hours lost by diverting special education teachers into mainstream classes.