"We are patching holes to keep the schools afloat," said a primary school principal who dreads the phone ringing in case it leads to a futile search for a substitute teacher.
Bryan Collins has had to shelve many of his administrative and management duties as principal of Scoil Naomh Feichin in Termonfeckin, Co. Louth in order to teach classes because of the chronic shortage of substitute teachers.
Earlier this school year, the north east branch of the IPPN Primary Principals Networking & Support Group carried out a survey of 42 primary schools in the greater Drogheda area to gather more information about the difficulties that schools were having in sourcing substitute teachers.
In the schools surveyed, no substitute teacher could be found to cover a mainstream class teacher or a special education class on 296 collective days during the month of September 2021.
In a second survey on November 1st this year, as students returned after the midterm break, substitute cover could only be provided for 24 out of 65 teachers who were unable to attend school because of illness or Covid-19 restrictions on that day.
Mr Collins is hoping parents and the wider community can be made aware of the extent of the problem, which may lead to some schools having to send students home, as a last resort, over the coming months.
"The last two years have been very difficult for everyone, but particularly challenging for school communities," he said.
"All schools are experiencing major problems trying to find subs. As classes can no longer be divided up, due to Covid-19 restrictions, and as teachers, who would normally come to work with cold symptoms or minor illnesses, cannot now do so, we're facing into the perfect storm."
The school has eleven mainstream class teachers and 284 students.
"For the last few weeks, I've been teaching classes myself during school hours. My principal's job then starts at 3.15pm, when the pupils have gone home, and I try to tackle the backlog of administration. It's not good in the long-term for anyone and no school principal can continue to do this indefinitely.
"Our school was granted permission to set up a new Substitute Supply Panel this year, and we appointed four excellent young teachers to cover absences in 19 primary schools in the rural area around the town of Drogheda.
"As these teachers are shared between schools with hundreds of teachers and thousands of pupils, it's no surprise that they are completely booked out for months in advance"
"When I checked earlier this week I could see that all four teachers are almost completely booked up until January 2022. Miraculously, I was able to find one of them who was available last Friday to help me out when we needed three substitute teachers due to Covid-19 and other illnesses.
"Myself and a special education teacher took the remaining two classes that day.
From 6.45am each morning, I dread my phone ringing. All weekend, I dread my phone ringing in case it's a sick teacher calling to tell me they can't come in.
"I remind my staff that it's never too early to call if this happens. Even though I know my search for a substitute will be fruitless, it will give me that extra bit of time to get my head around how we can manage the school day and who will be available to cover each class in the school.
"We really are all just patching the holes to keep our schools afloat."
"We are extremely fortunate to have a very effective primary principals network here in the north-east with 65 principals involved.
"We do our best to support each other by giving advice and sharing the names and contact details of substitute teachers who may be available. This collegiality is invaluable and has kept us all going, over the last two years, in particular.
The numbers that came out of the September substitute teacher survey were truly shocking, according to Mr Collins
"We realised that the situation was bad but had no idea how much it had deteriorated this year. I actually had to get a calculator out to check the figures as I couldn't believe my eyes.
"As a group we are extremely concerned at this stage that there may be a low level of awareness among parents of how serious the situation has become in schools.
"The last thing any school principal wants to do is to admit defeat and to be forced to send a class home for a day. And the saddest part about this whole saga is that the substitute problem is not a new one. It's been a persistent problem for several years, but Covid-19 has made it immeasurably worse."
"I certainly don't want to be put in a position where I have to inform parents that I am left with no option but to send a class group home for the day but, unfortunately, this is very likely to happen, especially when new regulations relating to close contacts are introduced on November 29th. These new regulations, while very necessary, will result in more teachers being unable to attend school.
"It's absolutely imperative that parents and guardians of pupils in our schools are made aware of the full story so that they can prepare themselves for further disruption in our schools over the coming weeks and months."