For teachers, staff and pupils it will be a challenging year ahead in Irish schools
With August now here momentum gathers once again for the annual return to the classroom of almost one million schoolchildren throughout the country. In any normal year that return of pupils and teachers to the country’s 4,000 schools is a huge challenge. This year, that undertaking will be of unprecedented magnitude.
Since the coronavirus arrived on our shores earlier this year schools have been padlocked from March. That closure forced education to be carried out in virtual classroom environments for the remainder of the academic year. Indeed, the scale of the health issue caused by Covid-19 forced the cancellation of both Junior and Leaving Certificate examinations in June.
Last week the new Education Minister, Norma Foley, announced a €376 million comprehensive package designed to help schools re-open as safely as possible. But as wide-ranging as it is the Taoiseach Micheál Martin said there remains “no zero risk scenario” in terms of schools reopening.
Some of the main points of the package include: capital grants, school cleaning grants, grants to assist logistical changes, grants to replace teachers unable to work, additional teaching and guidance posts, supervision, transport, etc.
A WELCOME RETURN TO IN-PERSON EDUCATION
“Teachers and students are looking forward to returning to school at the start of September,” according to John McCarthy, principal at Gaelcholáiste Chéitinn and Raheen College in Clonmel. “While there has been a certain amount of trepidation and hesitancy about the announcement of a return to school, teachers and management have welcomed there will be a return to in-person education and there is a sense of relief that there will be student voices lighting up the corridors of the two schools,” he said.
“Being a small school has its definite advantages at a time like this,” he said. “Our Raheen Road campus has plenty of space and ample rooms to deal with the social distancing required. While we will still be adapting our structures so that we can adhere to guidelines as set down by the Government’s Roadmap to Return to School. Indeed, the school is undergoing significant refurbishment over the summer. In fact, we will be welcoming some students back to school a little earlier in August as we are taking part in the Deis Summer Education Programme,” added Mr McCarthy.
John McCarthy, Principal, Gaelcholáiste Chéitinn and Raheen College, Clonmel
“In the Gaelcholáiste, we have a history of setting out small classes and this will continue in September. We had already adapted our timetable to go with one hour classes in September and we are heartened to see that this is one of the suggestions set out in the Government’s Roadmap. We had seen this as an essential in any return to in school learning and having it already in place has definitely eased the administrative burden.”
But there are some major challenges also around the reopening of schools with the Covid-19.
“While we welcome the return, we are very conscious of the pitfalls that lie ahead. Mixing of students at lunch time and on busses is an issue that needs to be addressed and while we have our own strategies in mind with how to deal with this, we look forward to further clarification from the Department of Education on these areas,” continued Mr McCarthy.
Another concern of the dual-school principal is the exam year students.
“We also have concerns for our 6th and 3rd Year students. The Department has stated in the Roadmap that they will adapt the exams for 2021 for students but we await to see the full detail of this.
“Our first priority when students arrive back will be to give them a full idea of what is expected of them as our partners in education and to work out where the students need reinforcement since the lockdown began. Personally, I can’t wait to meet our students again,” he concluded.
SCHOOLS WILL RISE TO THE READJUSTMENTS
Michael O’Loughlin, principal of the Presentation Second School in Clonmel, gave a positive response to the Roadmap.
“I welcome the provision of extra supports from the Department of Education over the coming weeks,” he said. “There is increased management and staffing supports and there is an adjustment of pupil teacher ratio, which allows for employment of more teachers, an increase in our guidance provision and an additional supervision support. These new supports are granted automatically to schools which is an added bonus for principals as time does not have to be wasted on application forms and going through the process of applying for the grants,” he said.
According to Mr O’Loughlin: “School communities will face many challenges over the coming weeks. On a personal level, I think the 1 metre social distance requirement will be very difficult for schools. While each school setting is different in terms of location, physical layout, available space within the school, student numbers and class configuration, the infrastructure of our schools are dated and the classrooms and school corridors will certainly provide a challenge for the social distance requirement,” he said.
Michael O’Loughlin, Principal, Presentation Secondary School, Clonmel
“Over the coming weeks, I have no doubt school communities will rise to the readjustment of school life. As ever, we will be guided by the public health advice. It will be important to apply a common sense approach and doing everything that is practical to avoid the introduction of Covid-19. Schools are places where teaching and learning is to the fore but we also must look after our students through our pastoral care systems.
“Students will need support to re-engage with school life and we must use our additional supports to assist everyone to settle in, to feel safe and happy in their work,” he said.