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Schools hit by a wave of winter illnesses, worsening teacher shortages

Schools are being hit early by a wave of winter illnesses, leaving some headteachers concerned about a shortage of relief teachers.

New Zealand appears to be on the cusp of another Covid-19 wave similar in size to the previous two, one modeller says, but this time it comes in the middle of the disease season.

May Road School headteacher Lynda Stuart said staff are already seeing a rise in Covid cases in schools.

“This fight seems to be hitting as hard, if not harder, than last year, poor health seems to be hitting schools earlier than normal during the year.

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“At our school there are several children with flu-like or Covid-like symptoms and I just thanked parents in the newsletter for keeping children home when they are really sick.”

In addition to the health implications for the school community, Stuart said the wave of illnesses highlighted a worrying shortage of relief teachers.

“The current number of relief teachers is terrible.”

Managers are also concerned about having enough budget to cover the costs of relievers, he said.

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“My senior colleagues and I have to deal with split classes and teachers giving up free time in classrooms or specialized programs where a reliever is not available.

Lynda Stuart, Principal of May Rd School. Photo / Sylvie Whinray
Lynda Stuart, Principal of May Rd School. Photo / Sylvie Whinray

“This is also impacting the availability of support staff and the span of coverage where additional support is needed for children.”

Stuart said greater financial investment in schools and efforts to increase the pool of support teachers would make the biggest difference.

“I am also concerned that our budget cannot cover staff costs.

“In the past we have been able to claim the financial costs associated with this from the Ministry of Education.”

He said this support is not currently available but would be beneficial.

“This requires an urgent system response if schools are to be able to ensure equitable access to quality learning for all tamariki.”

Ministry of Education (MoE) workforce leader Jolanda Meijer said the illness will affect school staff, including demand for relievers.

“There has been more demand for day relievers since the pandemic.”

The number of day relief teachers available across the country each year grew in 2023, Meijer said.

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In 2021 there were 8,458 relief teachers nationwide and the Ministry of Education said that in 2023 the number increased to 9,548 teachers.

In 2011 there were 12,272 relief teachers nationwide, the highest in the last 20 years, according to Education Counts/MoE data.

Because schools are governed by school boards, the ministry does not have access to data showing why teachers are sick, Meijer said.

Meijer said the ministry has progressively installed Internal Environmental Monitoring (IEM) devices in schools, which also help schools understand ventilation requirements.

“This response included the distribution of nearly 13,000 CO2 monitors and 14,000 portable air cleaners, and these items were delivered to schools for continued use.”

Six months after last year’s Christmas surge, Professor Michael Plank said there had been a “sharp” rise in indicators towards another rise.

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That included an increase in hospital admissions last week (from 152 cases in the previous week to 242) along with a near doubling of reported cases, from 3,922 to 6,146.

“We are now in a cycle where, when we have a wave, a significant number of people become infected and develop some immunity, but over time, that immunity at the population level decreases due to the decline and the arrival of new variants” . Plank said.

“Over time, we reach a point where the level of immunity has decreased enough that the virus can begin to increase, and the cycle begins again.”

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