COVID-19: Secondary schools forced to finish days early to cope with ongoing teacher shortages

Secondary schools are being forced to close their doors early each day to cope with ongoing staff and relief teacher shortages. 

Others are combating the issue by asking students to take turns working from home. 

Principals say the shortages are caused mainly by ongoing COVID-19 infections or isolation requirements. 

"Last week we had situations where we were calling on 23 different teachers to cover extra classes, on top of their contract load,' Cath Knell, Lynfield College principal, told Newshub.

For the next two weeks, Lynfield College will close earlier than usual. 

The Secondary Principals' Association says the school is not alone, because it's a nationwide issue. 

"I know schools that, for example, this week, year 12s are working from home and everybody else is on-site so it frees staffing up," Secondary Principals' Association president and Papatoetoe High School principal Vaughan Couillault told Newshub.

"In some cases, when it's really acute, you'll be shutting a school down for a period of time."

 Knell has worked at her school for almost 20 years and says it's the first time it has temporarily closed early each day due to staff shortages. 

"In focusing on the wellbeing of our staff and our relievers, and a real focus on the continuity of our learners, it absolutely had to be something we had to switch to," Knell said. 

"It's never easy to close or restrict the time students are able to access learning on-site... it's not an ideal situation and we're going to review it weekly."

The Papatoetoe High School Principal says it's not just COVID-19 that's causing the issue, but other general illnesses. 

"Yesterday, I had 15 staff out - 7 of those were COVID-19," Couillault told Newshub. 

Both principals say getting a relief teacher in to cover for staff absences is proving extremely difficult. 

"It's not really a pool [of relief teachers], it's more of a shallow puddle ... we're now down to single digits worth of relievers," Couillault said. 

And with no relief teachers around, it falls on regular teachers to cover their colleagues' shifts - something which Knell says is not sustainable. 

The Education Minister says there's no doubt the pandemic has put pressure on schools. 

“The close contact exemption scheme was designed to alleviate some of this pressure, by allowing non-symptomatic close contact staff members to continue to work, with a test each day," Chris Hipkins told Newshub. 

“To support schools and kura to meet increased relief teacher costs during Term 1 this year, we also temporarily lowered the threshold for seeking additional relief teacher funding from eight to four days for COVID-19 related reasons under the protection framework. 

“These changes have now been extended into Term 2," Hipkins said. 

The Education Minister said the Government is also re-activating education cash incentives to help attract foreign teachers to New Zealand. 

But Couillault said it's not a long term solution.

"What needs to happen is we need more humans that want to be teachers - that can't happen overnight," Couillault said.

"We need to recruit more people into the profession, and recruiting people into any profession is pay and conditions, right?"

Watch the full story above.