Principals battling to keep classrooms open with rise in infections

Principals battling to keep classrooms open with rise in infections

12 January 2022

SCHOOL leaders have spoken out about the challenges they face from the impact of the Omicron variant of Covid-19.

Secondary schools have reported seeing an increase in positive cases in pupils but so far have managed to keep things running as normally as possible.

Karen Caulfield, vice-principal of Shimna Integrated College in Newcastle, reported on Monday that 35 students were off due to Covid reasons in addition to normal absence.

“Last term we had minimal student absence, maybe 12 students at any one time, but this month has been the opposite, so the challenge for us is the blended learning with 35 kids off,” Mrs Caulfield said.

She said that teachers were working hard to continue classes in school while teaching a large number of students remotely at home at the same time.

“Our teachers and classroom assistants have been amazing but for us it’s the uncertainty we face that’s worrying. Today may be OK and manageable, but we know that everything could change at very short notice.

“If we had six or seven teachers tomorrow for example, who tested positive or had to isolate, then we know we are into sending groups home.

“We have explored every possible scenario we could face and the one that unsettles us the most is that if we come in the morning and find that all of 600 plus students have arrived in school and then we discover we have ten teachers off.”

Mrs Caulfield continued: “We are taking a day at a time and are staying positive and support the students as much as we can.”

Securing substitute teachers has been a challenge for many schools and Mrs Caulfield said that Shimna had secured two for the end of the month in anticipation of needing them.

Down High School principal Maud Perry said she had secured a “number of dedicated and outstanding substitute teachers with close links to the school” to cover for absent teachers.

She continued: “Like all schools, Down High is keeping an eye on the numbers of positive cases as they arise. 

“Staff and many of our pupils test themselves regularly using lateral flow tests, allowing them to take appropriate action in the event of a positive result and our pupils and parents have been very sensible when presented with symptoms of Covid. 

“Early action has been of benefit in keeping the levels of absence as low as possible. It is demonstrable that the best place for pupils is in the classroom, but like other schools contingency planning means that we may have to – as a last resort – ask a year group not sitting public examinations to work from home. Thankfully, we have not had to do this to date.”

Mrs Perry added that the school benefited from being “very open” with  with pupils and was due to get a number of Co2 monitors to enable teachers to take steps if classrooms require greater ventilation.

De La Salle High School principal Ciaran Maguire said he was determined to keep things as normal as possible.

“The recent impact of the Omicron variant is proving to be very difficult but the school is determined to remain open,” he said.

“There have been times that individual classes or year groups have had to access lessons remotely, but we have kept this to a very minimum and provided extra support to those children and families that needed it. 

“Staff and pupils have been exceptional in taking those small mitigating measures, such as face coverings, lateral flow testing, social distancing and good hygiene, along with the super uptake of the Covid vaccine, helping our staff and pupils to remain in the classroom.”

He added that the school being used as a site for a mobile testing unit at the weekends was “our way of giving something back to the local community as we collectively ensure that children and their families come first”.

Stephen Taylor, principal of Blackwater Integrated College in Downpatrick, said the school had managed to get through so far without having to send any students home for remote learning during this latest phase of Omicron.

He added: “There are obvious challenges in relation to staffing and accessing substitute teachers is extremely difficult in the current climate. “We have employed two permanent substitute teachers through to the February half term break to allow some continuity for our students.”

Mr Taylor is also using Co2 monitors to detect poorly ventilated areas.

He said his main concern was the interruption in learning for Year 12 students facing exams from next month onwards.

“There is a huge concern that these cohort of students will be the worst affected of any year groups so far,” he stressed.

“Like all teachers and principals that I know I believe students should be in school and we need to do all we can to keep this as our priority. To do this however we need support and guidance from the NI Executive and Department of Education to make sure all that can be done is being done.”

St Colman’s High School and Sixth Form College in Ballynahinch confirmed “an increasing rise in the number of pupils and staff contracting Covid over the last term”.

Vice-principal Jennifer King said: “To date we have been able to continue with provision for all pupils on site. However, the immense difficulties in recruiting substitute teachers has added huge pressures. “With the current continued increase in numbers of pupils and staff self-isolating, there is absolutely no doubt that pupils sitting public examinations this year will be disadvantaged by this ongoing situation in school.”

Peter Dobbin, principal of of Assumption Grammar School in Ballynahinch, said his school was operating “as normal”, as it had last term.

He said: “Assumption Grammar has been very fortunate in that, since September last year, teaching and learning have been able to keep going as normal up until now, with little to no real disruption from Covid. 

“We are, however, very concerned about the increasing numbers of the new Omicron variant which is impacting on staff and student absences. “We are monitoring the situation very carefully in line with DE and PHA guidance.”