Staff burnout, maintaining a safe environment, and an increased financial burden are among concerns cited by principals in an official report on reopening schools published by the Department of Education.
Addressing gaps in learning due to school closures, the reduction in teaching time due to new cleaning measures, and the loss of extracurricular activities were also among the challenges identified by principals interviewed for the study.
Complied by the inspectorate, the report is based on interviews and feedback from school principals and school leaders, collected in September.
In general, principals reported the return to school was positive for all pupils and staff. Children were reported to be “settled, calm and delighted to be back” while also adapting well to new routines.
One primary principal said:
The helpline and dedicated email set up to assist schools with preparation for reopening as well as the funding package available to schools were also identified by a number of principals as a success. It was a similar outcome for the cooperation of staff and students with the safety measures in schools.
However, a number of significant challenges were also highlighted throughout the report. Senior leadership burnout, as well as significant stress amongst school staff, are a concern.
In discussions with the inspectors, principals described the "extraordinary challenges" between March to September "citing the mental and physical impact of their significantly increased workload". In many instances, serious work-related issues, like "stress, burn-out, and high levels of exhaustion", were referenced.
Some primary principals also reported difficulties in keeping 'bubbles' and 'pods' apart from other bubbles, groups, and classes. These difficulties were also reported at post-primary level, where a greater number of challenges were reported around compliance.
A "significant proportion" of principals also referenced challenges such as Covid-related teacher absences, the difficulty of recruiting qualified substitute teachers, and the need for school staff to have access to rapid Covid-testing.
Of particular concern at primary level was the provision for students with special educational needs.
Principals also expressed regret at not being able to provide the same range of extra- and co-curricular activities due to Covid, referencing the impact of this on learners’ development.
In its recommendations to the department, the inspectorate said work-related pressure on principals and the wellbeing supports to schools needed to be monitored on an ongoing basis.
There is a "long-term need" to analyse and evaluate the impact of the pandemic on teaching and learning, it also found.