Relief teachers ‘like unicorns’ for struggling schools

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Schools are reopening for the third term today and principals fear staff shortages and winter illnesses could be just as bad as last term.

They warned RNZ that some teachers and students were at breaking point ahead of the July two-week holiday and would need respite in the coming months.

They also said new instructions “strongly recommending” face masks would not be as effective as a government full-face mask mandate.

South Secondary Principals Association president Richard Dykes, a Nelson College tumuaki, said staffing and continued disruption to learning would be the biggest challenges to schools reopening.

“This disruption is becoming cumulative and what I’m hearing from schools in my area but also further afield around the South Island and New Zealand is the fear that we have students who are already saying ‘look, given the amount of disruption – this is probably our most at risk students – that’s it, I’m disconnecting,” he said.

Dykes said in the second term, schools on average had around 20% of staff absent on any given day and teachers had to give up free time to cover lessons.

“I think the directors are really worried that we’ve reached the end of the term at about the breaking point,” he said.

“If we pick up from there and continue at the same pace, head teachers are really concerned that the impact on our staff will be significant.”

He said the government needed to announce as soon as possible what steps it would take to help students pass the NCEA this year and relieve the pressure on teenagers and teachers.

Dykes said the government also needed to recall wide-ranging changes to the school system – such as its overhaul of the NCEA qualification.

Secondary Principals Association President and Principal of Papatoetoe Secondary School Vaughan Couillault said staffing will continue to be a big issue this term.

“Even a low level of staff absenteeism, say there were eight or 10 teachers, which in a school of my size is a relatively normal day, I have no more substitutes to cover them, so I have to start going home.

“So it’s not about huge quantums of people getting sick, it’s not about anybody to cover because there’s just no relievers and there’s just no staff” , did he declare.

He said the government should make it easier to hire foreign teachers.

Principal of Beach Haven Primary School in Auckland, Stephanie Thompson, said she fears there will be no respite from the illnesses that have been so disruptive last term.

“Between the flu and Covid really hitting our staffing community, Term 3 doesn’t look any rosier and of course the more sick staff you have the harder it is to get things rolling at the moment. school because relievers are like unicorns,” she said.

Thompson said staffing will be even more difficult for elementary schools this term, as they will need teachers to cover mid-year enrollment growth, leaving even fewer staff available to work as relief workers. .

The Department for Education has started providing masks to staff and students and wrote to head teachers last week saying it strongly recommends that they require masks indoors during the first four weeks of the third trimester. Previously, wearing a mask was only strongly encouraged.

Headmaster of St Patrick’s School in Invercargill Callan Goodall said the government’s stance on masks was not helpful for schools.

“We are the meat in the sandwich where we are the ones to say to our communities, yes you all have to wear masks or not, and there is no consistency across the country on that.

“So there will be schools where everyone has to wear masks and there will be schools where no one wears masks.

“Really, it would be a lot easier if the ministry just drew a line in the sand and said either everyone has to wear masks or nobody needs to wear masks,” he said.

Goodall said that, like schools around the world, those in Invercargill were finding it nearly impossible to find relief teachers.

“We are now in a position where relievers are almost impossible to find,” he said.

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