Sending students home from school could be the only option if the shortage of relief teachers gets any worse, a Northland principal says.
Hikurangi School principal Bruce Crawford said with only three relievers on the school's books, classrooms are often left without a teacher.
That means splitting classes between the rest of the school. This process is disruptive for students, stressful for teachers and basically just "babysitting," he said.
But if there weren't enough staff even for that, students would have to be sent home, he said.
"It's the only thing I've got apart from putting them in my hall and showing them movies," Crawford said.
He said he knew some parents would prefer that option, but to him it felt "professionally wrong".
He was "crossing his fingers" they could make it to the end of term without resorting to sending students home, but said in the last week they had to split four or five classes.
A survey by Te Tai Tokerau Principals' Association showed the lack of relievers is straining schools across Northland.
In one week in May, there were 415 teacher-absent days and no cover for 92.5 of these.
Spokesperson Leanne Otene said while the relief teacher shortage was felt nationwide, it was particularly acute in Northland where many schools were immersion or bilingual and were often isolated.
Hikurangi School has a te reo Māori immersion class, and no hope of a reliever if the teacher was ill.
Crawford said it wasn't healthy for the teacher or her students for her to come to school sick, but there were no other options.
Otene said principals only expected things to get worse over the coming months.
In the Far North, principal of Kaitaia Primary School Brendon Morrissey was worried about winter, when sickness meant the demand for relievers went up "dramatically".
All the schools in the area were "scrounging" for the same relievers, he said, without enough to go round.
He had coaxed a few teachers out of retirement to help, but described the situation as "treading water".
"We're getting by as best we can, but I'm quite sad that's all we can do," he said.