Principals under increasing strain amid fears of rolling school closures in second Covid wave
THE spike in coronavirus cases is presenting increasing challenges for principals amid fears a second wave will bring chaos to schools.
Children only returned to classrooms full-time this month after prolonged closures during lockdown.
Already, dozens of schools have been affected by Covid cases.
They have responded differently. Some asked single pupils to isolate, while others sent home full classes or entire year groups.
This week, the 1,600-pupil Holy Cross College in Strabane became the largest school to temporarily close following three cases.
Malone College in Belfast was also forced to close its doors, while Fleming Fulton Special School in Belfast previously closed for one day and Jonesborough PS in south Armagh asked P2/3 pupils to isolate for 14 days.
Principals have suggested that the situation unfolding now is a sign of things to come.
They caution that this is even before the expected winter second wave hits.
The number of pupils attending secondary schools is already falling.
Since term began, the attendance rate in non-grammar settings has slumped from 94.5 to 88.3 per cent. In grammar schools, there has been a drop from 97.1 to 92.6 per cent.
There are concerns that staffing shortages, due to teachers or classroom assistants falling ill, could cause further closures.
National Association of Head Teachers president Graham Gault said it was no surprise that as Covid-19 transmissions rise across society, the numbers of children and staff affected is also increasing.
"This is presenting increasing challenge for school leadership," Mr Gault said.
"As we see children sharing buses and mixing in many ways outside of their school-based protective bubbles, we are seeing increases in transmission. There is no amount of mitigation that schools can further make within school contexts to offset this.
"Whilst we are finally moving to a position where we have improved consistency in terms of general guidance we are receiving to help mitigate against risk within school, principals are now struggling with accessing reactive guidance for when specific cases arise."
Mr Gault said the Public Health Agency was unavailable to advise school leaders outside normal working hours.
However, he said in many cases principals were being informed about positive cases in the evening or over the weekend.
Immediate advice, Mr Gault said, is necessary to help the principal identify potential close contacts and take appropriate action.
"My advice to school leaders is to always err on the side of safety. If appropriate advice is not available to make an immediate decision, the principal must make a decision based only on safety considerations," he said.
"Another likelihood, as we move through this pandemic, is that staffing shortages will require cohorts of children and even whole schools having to close.
"It is extremely important that our political representatives are realistic in how we create expectations of what can be delivered. If schools are unable to safely open because appropriate numbers of appropriately trained staff are unavailable due to sickness or isolation, they will simply not open."
The INTO union said it was inundated with queries from anxious and confused teachers and principals struggling to interpret different sets of guidance.
"While teachers wish to see schooling returned to something which we all understand to be normality, this looks increasingly like being a vain hope," said northern secretary Gerry Murphy.
"Teachers are being further tested and stressed as they seek to employ the tools allegedly created to assist them. The limitations of websites and telephone helplines coupled with delays in getting responses to specific queries from DE (Department of Education) and the employing authorities are all adding to their already overloaded burdens.
"The physical and mental strain teachers and principals are experiencing is unprecedented. Given that we are six months into this pandemic, one would be forgiven for thinking that things should be improving for frontline workers but for teachers that is not the case. The future remains largely uncertain."