Thousands of teachers are expected to be absent from schools as they reopen on Thursday due to soaring Covid-19 cases.
Teaching unions and parents' lobbies had all raised concerns about student and staff safety in the classroom, but public health officials cleared the way for the return to school earlier this week.
John Boyle, general secretary of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO), said they could have up to 8,000 members missing from school, including teachers who have the virus and more who are close contacts of confirmed cases.
Speaking onon Wednesday, he said: “Even though parents will be absolutely thrilled that schools are reopening tomorrow, there is a big caution around all of this. We’re probably going to have 7,000 to 8,000 members missing.”
A spokesperson for the Association of Secondary Teachers, Ireland (ASTI) said that, anecdotally, ASTI members have reported that 10% or more of staff in their school are currently affected. Some teachers expect a significant percentage of staff, between 30% and 40% or higher, could be affected.
A survey conducted by the Irish Primary Principals’ Network (IPPN) of more than 1,500 schools found half are facing staff shortages of 20%, while almost one in 10 schools (8%) expect to have less than half of their staff available to work, due to Covid.
IPPN president Brian O'Doherty told RTÉ radio that 40% of schools that had responded to the survey had reported they would have insufficient staff to reopen all classes.
The Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) has criticised the department’s delay in implementing safety measures in schools.
“A promise of appropriate masks, Hepa filters, additional CO2 monitors, and mechanical ventilation systems in the future does not protect our schools, staff and students against Covid-19 today,” said TUI general secretary Michael Gillespie.
Áine McLaughlin, Irish Second-level Students' Union regional officer for Cork County, said there was “palpable anxiety amongst students” about the return to school.
“With case numbers at an extreme high, my peers and I are not reassured that our schools have been given ample time to mitigate the risk of Covid spreading in our communities,” she said.
Education Minister Norma Foley also spoke on RTÉ radio on Wednesday, and accepted reopening "will not be without its challenges".
Ms Foley said the department will work with schools to ensure the maximum number of students will get in-person education, but wanted to see “a hierarchy of priority” for children remaining in school, including special needs pupils, younger children for whom remote learning would be difficult, and exam students.
The minister also said derogation measures to reduce isolation periods for teachers were not on the cards.