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Peter Walsh, Principal of St Conaire's National School, Shannon: We’re part of a supply panel and that’s pretty much booked out so we have to go with third and fourth year students from the colleges of education. It’s all hands on deck.”

Large scale absences expected as Clare schools reopen

CLARE schools resume today at a time when Covid-19 transmission is at its highest point since the pandemic began.

With a huge amount of people either having tested positive or having been close contacts of positive cases, there will inevitably be many teachers and pupils absent in the coming days.

On Wednesday, Peter Walsh, principal of St Conaire’s in Shannon was preparing for the resumption, aware that a large cohort of teachers won’t be available for the first day back.

“At the moment I’m looking at six and possibly seven (who won’t be there). That’s just over a quarter of my teaching staff.”

He said that he had spoken to colleagues on Tuesday and Wednesday who were also expecting similar levels of teacher absence.

Mr Walsh said that it is very difficult to prepare when Covid-19 is so prevalent.

“It’s very, very challenging. It’s probably even more challenging than it was back in September, now that Covid-19 is everywhere with the Omicron variant, it seems to be visiting an awful lot of households and families.

“It’s just about trying to get ready for it, trying to track down substitute staff and send messages to parents and things like that. We just have to get on with it, I guess.”

Even before Christmas it was difficult to get substitute teachers and that will be the case again for the early weeks of 2022.

“Our regular supply of substitute teachers is drying up because other schools are using them. We’re part of a supply panel and that’s pretty much booked out so we have to go with third and fourth year students from the colleges of education. It’s all hands on deck.”

He said that the substitute teachers that St Conaire’s have been a great support.

“We’ve been very lucky with the cohort we’ve had, they’ve been very good. It’s good learning, good on the job training for them. We’re delighted to have them, it’s a good stopgap for the moment and it’s a day by day situation in relation to filling vacancies.”

While he has a fair idea of how many teachers will be out, the number of students affected won’t become clear until Thursday.

“In the few days running up to Christmas we could see that numbers were down, but that was possibly because people were taking precautions. Today I’ve been getting emails saying that such and such a child is isolating, but I won’t really know until Thursday morning.”

It is a difficult time to be a school principal and he said that new problems frequently appear.

“It is a very difficult situation and there’s a day by day approach, you just have to wait and see what the day throws up. Thankfully at the moment I can cover all absences, but we are stretched and I’m sure all my colleagues in other schools are stretched as well.”

Principal of St Caimin’s Community School, Alan Cunnigham said he expects student absenteeism to be a greater problem than staff absenteeism when classes resume on Thursday.

“It looks like it’ll be more students really. We got hit badly with staff absences before Christmas, but as of now we don’t have too many. “

He said that a lot of parents had been in contact with him on Wednesday and with a large amount of Covid-19 cases in Shannon, it is likely that many students won’t be able to come in on Thursday.

“Absences in December, we’d seen nothing like it, they were getting higher and higher. I would expect that to continue. There is huge confusion over what close contacts do, it can be very complex, have they had one vaccine, two vaccines, have they had a booster or not. It’s very difficult for parents to follow and to know what they’re supposed to do with their kids.”

He said the challenges being faced now are really a continuation of what has been going on since March of 2020.

“It hasn’t stopped, it’s nothing different to what it has been for the last few years.”

About Owen Ryan

Owen Ryan has been a journalist with the Clare Champion since 2007, having previously worked for a number of other regional titles in Limerick, Galway and Cork.