By Dominic McGrath, PA
The substitute teachers set to shore up Ireland’s education system amid record Covid-19 cases say they are worried about whether their efforts will be enough to keep schools open.
Trade unions have predicted that when schools reopen on Thursday, thousands of full-time teachers will be absent due to Covid-19.
Ireland is experiencing record case numbers, but health officials and the Minister for Education Norma Foley have insisted schools are safe to return.
Education officials and principals are hoping that relying on trainee teachers and replacements will be enough to avoid large-scale closures.
But the Government has acknowledged that the coming weeks will bring fresh challenges for staff, parents and pupils.
Sorcha Ni Chonghaile, a 22-year-old primary school teacher from Meath, is mostly based in and around north Dublin.
She said that she and her colleagues were “scared” but would be taking all the precautions they could.
She said she was concerned about whether there would be enough substitute teachers to plug the gap, if replacement staff were forced into isolation too.
“I suppose there’s just that fear that because there’s such little mitigation in the younger years, that we might end up in a situation where we’ve become a close contact ourselves and then there’s no fallback,” she told the PA news agency.
“We just have to do what we can and try and keep ourselves safe.”
She said she disliked what she saw as a “perception” that it was “teachers versus parents or teachers and parents versus Norma”.
“We are just trying to do our best. We just want to keep the kids safe and make sure they’re getting an education,” she added.
Nonetheless, Ms Ni Chonghaile said she would feel safer if some of the protective measures demanded by trade unions – such as HEPA filters for classrooms and higher-grade facemasks for schools – were introduced.
“I don’t think anyone would be against any further mitigation,” she said.
She added that she thought current measures were not “really working”, especially with younger children.
It was unclear whether Ms Ni Chonghaile would be based in one school as a substitute, or would be asked to move between various schools.
But she said she planned to take some extra precautions if it was the latter arrangement.
“If there is a possibility of having some sort of small circuit break in between each school I’ll take it, but I will be using antigen tests and everything else as I’m sure many people will be doing the same,” she told PA.
She said she would not be “visiting my grandparents or anything like that while I’m covering because I don’t think that risk is worth it”.
Ms Ni Chonghaile said she thought the next few weeks were going to be difficult.
“I don’t necessarily think that you’ll see mass closures. I just think we have to be prepared for the reality that there may be days where there’s going to be some flexibility needed,” she said.
On Wednesday, the Minister for Education admitted there would be challenges in the coming days and weeks.
Ms Foley ruled out derogation for school staff who were close contacts and fully vaccinated.
“I was very clear from the outset that we would take a child-and-student-centred approach in terms of the operation of our schools,” she told RTÉ radio.
Sinead Harkin is a 24-year secondary school teacher from Galway.
She is working as a substitute teacher as a trainee, but is set to return to college at the end of January.
“I do not see how the school are going to do without me, if I’m honest,” she told PA.
“I don’t actually know what is going to happen in the next few days.”
Despite the uncertainty, she thought it was overall a good thing that schools were reopening.
“I’m actually glad we’re going back to school, in a way, because I think it is easier to teach, it is easier to be in school, in a routine and the kids learn better in school,” she said.
“I am delighted we’re going back, but I don’t see how they’re going to staff schools.”
Ms Harkin said she was worried about the combination of a Covid-19 testing system stretched to its limits and high rates of the virus in the community.
Such a situation means difficult decisions for everyone, she said.
“The Government should have seen this coming,” she added.
“It was always going to happen that there was going to be a surge. They should have funded the hospitals, funded the healthcare sector.”
She said a lot of people blamed teachers for not wanting to be back in classrooms.
“I love being in the classroom. It is difficult. It is freezing cold in there and kids are bound to get sick anyway, outside of Covid. But this craic of not being prepared for this huge surge – it should have been prepared for because it was always going to happen,” she said.