The Department of Education said it plans to meet the teacher training colleges in the coming days to see how students could be freed up to supply substitute cover in primary schools.

It comes as schools complain of a crisis in substitute cover.

Primary schools, in particular those in or close to Dublin, say they are being forced to use teachers who should be supporting children with additional needs to cover for classroom teachers who are out sick.

They say it is often proving impossible to source substitute teachers.

School leaders and teachers were angered this week when Minister for Education Norma Foley, speaking on Newstalk radio, reiterated Department policy that schools should "never" use special education teachers to fill the gaps.

The minister also appeared to downplay the issue of schools having difficulties finding cover, saying that her Department had not been informed of any problems.

Schools say an existing crisis has been exacerbated by the fact that Covid precautions mean they can no longer split up classes and place small groups of children with other teachers and pupils.

More school staff are reporting absent too because of Covid rules which mean no one with cold or flu symptoms should come to work.

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This evening the Department of Education said that, alongside the Teaching Council, it plans to meet the primary teacher training colleges in the coming days.

It will "explore how flexibilities in programme delivery could facilitate further additional substitution supply".

It pointed to the "major expansion" of primary teacher supply panels in the context of Covid-19 and said further work was underway "to ascertain if there are ways the operation of the panels can be enhanced".

It said the Teaching Council had emailed over 111,000 teachers on its register, asking any who may be available to substitute to register with, the national teacher substitution portal for all schools.

"There should be some capacity for teachers on the register who do not have full time positions to undertake more substitute work," it stated.

One school told RTÉ News that it contacted 21 substitute teachers one evening this week but none were available. The school has three teachers out sick.

"The Department does not want special education teachers used for teaching mainstream classes but with a lack of subs, I don't know what the alternative is - send the class home? leave them unsupervised?", the principal said.

"The Department of Education is not listening to the real issues, that are directly affecting pupils."

This school and others have complained that the supply panels established to support schools during Covid do not have enough teachers on them.

The Department of Education said it was engaging "on an ongoing basis with the primary stakeholders to analyse the demand for substitution and identify means to improve the availability of substitutes at this time".