A “massive shortage” of substitute teachers, most likely in Dublin and cities, awaits schools as they tussle with co-existing with the Covid-19 pandemic, unions have warned.
Representatives from the Irish National Teachers' Organisation (INTO), the Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI), the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) and Fórsa told a special committee on the pandemic response that a cohort of teachers are at high risk.
Supply panels will not cover the deficit across the country, with languages and sciences most likely affected, they said.
Ann Piggott of the ASTI said if a student in a secondary school becomes ill, it could mean six teachers being off work, while Michael Gillespie of the TUI said recruiting is proving hugely problematic.
The shortage will be chronic, he said, most likely in Dublin and urban areas, while John Boyle of the INTO said supply panels will not be able to cover the gaps.
Ms Piggott said she has seen “heartbreaking” pleas from teachers at very high risk from underlying health issues.
“We are getting heartbreaking letters and phonecalls. It’s not a lot of people, but people with very serious conditions, people who have had cancer, who are missing lungs, who have asthma -- multiple medical problems," she said.
Mr Gillespie said there is clarity needed around facemasks and coverings.
“We have raised it continuously (with the Department). The contradictory use of language in some of the documents - face coverings, soft coverings, face masks.
“If someone cannot wear a mask for medical reasons, there should be a certified medical reason for it and presented to the schools, and the schools will make alternative arrangements. The student or teacher who can’t wear a mask, it is down obviously to physical distancing,” he said.
Kieran Christie of the ASTI strongly echoed the call for clarity.
“We are guided by the medical professionals...what the system needs is clarity. We need definitive answers but unfortunately they have not been forthcoming.
“There has been confusion in a lot of schools. It seems to me that a range of issues in relation to the medical side of things where there is an element of confusion and silence, and it is difficult to get answers. The experts need to sit down with us and provide clarity in relation to things like perspex, where and when masks should be used. So far we are struggling to get answers to key questions we have had.” Mr Christie warned that substitute teaching will face problems.
“If you are the only physics teacher in a school and you go out sick, you won’t be replaced,” he said.
Mass overcrowding, years of under-investment and a lack of facilities will come home to roost, Mary Magner of the INTO warned.
Hot water and toilets are a “luxury” in some schools at times, she said, while some principals don’t even have offices.