Swine flu: winter spike

Second-level schools could be facing significant staffing problems by as early as November of this year if projected rates of swine flu begin to take hold here, school managers have warned.

Due to changes in the way schools are funded by the Department of Education, this could force them to cancel extra-curricular activities such as field trips, and could also see them struggle to provide supervision for other school activities.

Ferdia Kelly, general secretary of the Joint Managerial Body (JMB), which represents over 400 voluntary secondary schools around the country, said initial reports had indicated that the start of the 'back-to-school' period had passed without major problems last week.

"There seems to be a high level of cooperation with the new measures to combat swine flu," he said. "I'm not really surprised by that, as it will take two to three weeks for a pattern to emerge.

"But we have had a lot of positive feedback, and schools are happy enough. There seems to be an awareness out there among students and parents as to what needs to be done."

However, he warned that changes introduced by the education department last January mean voluntary second-level schools are now only allocated a set amount of money to cover uncertified absences by staff, as well as supervision and substitution arrangements.

While schools might have struggled to make ends meet in a normal school year, he noted that the additional pressures on these resources as a result of significant staff absences due to swine flu could lead to a "crisis situation" by as early as November.

"Things are getting tighter and tighter in terms of school budgets, and there is the ongoing maintenance of these preventative measures to consider," he said. "We have a rota of substitute teachers in schools, and if you suddenly find you have five people off that rota, that is a problem. If schools have to use all of their set substitution allowance in the next three months, to cover swine flu, then come November it could reach crisis point.

"In the short term we can manage it, but in the longer term it is going to have to impinge on resources."

Kelly's comments come as the latest Department of Health figures, released last Thursday, showed that the number of new cases of human swine flu diagnosed by GPs remained stable. Around 1,500 new cases were reported in the week to last Sunday.

But the figure is expected to rise in the coming weeks as the traditional winter flu season commences, with a corresponding increase in cases among the school-going population.