The substitute teacher crisis in schools is now an "absolute emergency on the ground", principals say.
They say there's now an urgent need for "big ideas" to get more teachers into the system to help cover classes during a "very difficult period" in schools.
Teachers' unions and principals have been warning of a shortage of substitute teachers for years - but the problem has intensified in recent months due to the impact of COVID-19.
A survey by the INTO found that 605 teachers and 3,726 pupils were reported as testing positive for COVID-19 between November 1st and 16th.
Other staff and pupils may be unable to attend school as they're a close contact of a confirmed case or have symptoms caused by other respiratory illnesses.
A meeting takes place tomorrow between the union and the Department of Education on the possibility of allowing more student teachers to take over classes.
A number of principals told The Hard Shoulder that particular measure is now badly needed.
Alan Kelly - Principal of Scoil Mhuire Naofa in Carrigallen, Leitrim - said many schools are "just about staying above water", and around 20% of his own school's students are currently absent.
He said: "We’re finding, especially since the close contact tracing was removed in September, increases in student absences and increased pressure in school.
“I think it’s been very well documented that there is absolutely a crisis on the ground in terms of staffing - and I’d extend that to teaching staff and SNAs.
“It’s an absolute emergency on the ground - we need to get any teachers that are available into the system to try to get us over this very difficult period.
"We need to look at inspectors… and yes we need to have a discussion with the training colleges about the fourth year and potentially third-year students.”
'Really, really tough' situation
Simon Lewis, Principal of Carlow Educate Together National School, said getting cover for staff is "really, really tough" at the moment.
He observed: “I had nine staff out today, and I was only able to get cover for a handful of them. We’ve had to pull on our special education teachers to come in and rescue us in terms of covering classes.
“I know there are plans for minor tweaks to try and rescue situations - but we need big ideas. Get our final year student teachers into classrooms - that would maybe throw another 500 teachers into the system. They’re nearly qualified.
“Get us to Christmas at least and see where we are then.”
Education Minister Norma Foley has said a number of measures have already been put in place to get more subs into schools, and has promised more changes are on the way.
However, Mr Lewis said his own school hasn't yet seen the impact of some of the new measures that have been put in place to boost the number of subs available.
He said: “They’re moving teachers that weren’t on a panel onto a panel - but they were teachers we were already using.”
He also said he doesn't believe there'd be any objection to cancelling some course days for teachers rather than leaving a class without a teacher for a day.