Union: ‘Minister must warn public that schools may close due to staffing crisis caused by Covid Omicron variant’

A teaching union has warned that some schools may have to close due to the current “staffing crisis” caused by the Covid-19 Omicron variant among teachers across NI.

By The Newsroom
Tuesday, 4th January 2022, 7:49 pm
Updated Tuesday, 4th January 2022, 7:51 pm

Graham Gault from the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), said that while teachers wanted schools to remain open, they had concerns over contact tracing as well as a staffing crisis.

Education minister Michelle McIlveen has said that her priority is to keep children in school and added that her department continues to liaise with the Department of Health as well as schools over Covid concerns.

The most recent Covid figures published by the Department of Health on New Year’s Eve showed that there were a further 7,215 cases notified, a record daily total since the beginning of the pandemic.

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Education Minister Michelle McIlveen (pictured) says her priority is to keep schools open and that she continues to liaise with the Department of Health and schools on Covid. Pic: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

Graham Gault said he had been asking for staffing contingency plans from the Department of Health for months.

“I do recall having conversations with DE officials in maybe September or August of last year predicting that there would be increased staff absences as we moved through - trends of virus transmission and so on - and could the department start to plan for contingencies at that stage,” he said. “Unfortunately the hallmark of the Departments response to the pandemic has been reactionary rather than planning contingencies in advance.”

It has been “extremely stressful” to front line school staff who have had to “make very last minute changes” during the pandemic.

“For the staffing crisis that we have at the moment - which was foreseeable - there haven’t really been any contingency plans that I can see that have had any impact whatsoever,” he told the BBC.

He acknowledged the minister made an appeal for retired teachers to come back to the profession before Christmas, but he said this should have been made much sooner. “It is also clear that isn’t going to generate a great deal of response.”

A coalition of unions asked the minister some time ago to reconsider redeploying teachers from other arms of education back into the classroom, but that he is unsure if this will happen.

The minister said that work has been done on the register of substitute teachers, he added. But he said that “school principals are phoning in all seriousness over 100 people from that list and still not getting someone who is available”.

He called on the minister to warn publicly that if enough staff cannot be found “then unfortunately some schools are going to have to move to temporary closures for some groups of children - in some cases perhaps all children”.

Mr Gault also warned: “Our experience is clearly that children spread this virus from child to child and we would expect that to be even more noticeable with the arrival of the Omicron variant.

“School leaders are deeply frustrated that we are going into another term with the absence of any meaningful contact tracing amongst the school population as well as the continuing strange isolation guidance for children, particularly when they have contacts at home.”

SDLP Education Spokesperson Daniel McCrossan accused the minister of a failure to show leadership. “We could have put measures in place to address this if Minister McIlveen had listened to the concerns that were repeatedly put to her and done her job,” he said.

But Ms McIlveen said she wanted to support teachers in keeping schools open safely.

She told BBC Good Morning Ulster: “Our priority remains keeping our children and young people in school.

“We have worked very closely with the Department of Health and with the PHA (Public Health Agency) throughout the Covid pandemic, along with school practitioners and trade unions.

“There has not been any change to the guidance as regards to Covid, because this very much comes as a recommendation from the Department of Health; at present we haven’t received anything different. In terms of contingency planning, my department has been preparing for various scenarios throughout all of the work areas.

“On December 6 we wrote a detailed note to schools with regards to remote learning. There are a number of scenarios where schools can use remote learning, particularly where they are experiencing staff shortages. We have been keeping in contact with schools directly.”

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