John Gerritsen, Education Correspondent
Rural schools have struggled to find enough relief teachers during the winter flu season with at least one sending students home because of a lack of staff.
Official figures showed there were fewer cases of flu than usual in the past few months, but principals told RNZ the teacher shortage was making it harder to find back-up when teachers were unwell or needed time away from the classroom.
Murupara Area School principal Angela Sharples said she recently had to take drastic action when the flu left the school without half of its teachers and not enough relievers.
"We actually had to roster home our senior students, our Years 9 to 13, on one day. I had planned on having our senior leadership team teaching and then we had another two staff call in sick that morning and I just didn't feel that I could safely open that part of the school."
Ms Sharples said she had never had to close part of her school before because of teacher absence.
"The relief teacher shortage has been getting worse in my opinion since I have been principal here at Murupara. But that combination of a poor teacher supply, poor relief teacher supply and then illness - I just couldn't come up with an appropriate solution."
She said it had become harder to find relievers since the introduction of a requirement that teachers who had not maintained their teaching registration complete a training course every six years.
She said the school provided a van to drive teachers and relievers from Rotorua which was 50 minutes away.
Ms Sharples said children in remote areas deserved education of as high a standard as those in urban areas.
The principal of Tuakau College near Pukekohe and Pokeno, Chris Betty, said the 48 teachers at his school had logged 330 sick days so far this year, which was a lot.
He said recently the school of 600 students could not find any relief teachers at all.
"We had five relievers that we wanted and we couldn't find them," he said.
Mr Betty said the school was forced to combine some classes and leave senior classes unsupervised.
He said being unable to find any relievers at all was unusual, but the school regularly had to leave classes unsupervised because of a lack of teachers.
"Sometimes we don't put relievers into senior classes, Year 13 classes, because they're 17, 18-year-olds, they're pretty responsible themselves. We might have someone visiting that class to check on them. There'd be a class each week I would think through the whole year on average. In the flu season it might be two or three classes," Mr Betty said.
Area Schools Association president Grant Burns said relievers were not just harder to find in rural areas than in urban areas, they were also more expensive because of their travel costs.
"We've certainly noticed that costs have crept up, actually more than crept up, have leapt up over the last five years at this school. It was around $25,000 a year we were spending on relief, now it's about $100,000 a year. The school has grown in that time, but not to that extent."
Mr Burns said one reason for the rising cost at his school was a growing reluctance to ask staff to cover for their colleagues during time they were supposed to use to prepare lessons.
He said finding relief teachers was time-consuming and it would be ideal if the government set up a central office to do the work.
"What I'd like to see is a middle layer of administration across a district that takes the daily scramble for relievers out of the hands of principals or their delegated staff members," he said.
"It would be nice if we could just simply make a call to the local ministry office or whatever it's called and say 'yep we need three relievers today please' and be able hang up the phone knowing those relievers were going to come. But at the moment we've got schools competing, all scrambling for a limited pool of relievers."
Mr Burns said jury duty was difficult for schools because it was never clear how long a teacher would be absent.
He said travel times also made it difficult to find relievers to cover short periods such as one or two hours in a day.