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Challenges ahead of schools reopening

AS it stands now, Peter Walsh, principal of St Conaire’s National School in Shannon, expects that he will be welcoming children back to school in September and to be making plans for the return quite soon.

“At the moment, we are watching for guidelines from the Department of Education and Skills. They have said that they are going to issue guidelines sometimes towards the third week of June. We’re talking to each other, watching the unions to see what they say and the INTO have published a very good piece on it. Locally, we’re watching and we’re doing a deep clean at the moment. We’ve invested in a lot of sanitisers for the entrances and we’re talking to staff as well.”

At the moment, it is a little early to do very much, as any measures could be overtaken by events and what the guidelines will ultimately say.

St Conaire’s is one of the larger national schools in Clare and that means there are a number of challenges to be met. “We installed new doors and windows through the department’s Summer Works scheme and we got an additional four doors out onto the yard, so that will alleviate the pressure on the entrances, but we have 420 children and it’s going to be challenging alright.”

He adds, “We are facing queries from parents and we have to reassure them that we will make sure everything is in place for the return. I think the next two or three weeks will tell a lot and then we’ll have an opportunity over the summer to prepare with signage, maybe look at training courses and how we’re going to manage things. Our own staff have been discussing it among themselves, just to be ready for the guidelines when they do come.”

The lockdown has been very hard for many people but children with autism were affected more than most, as their daily routines were dismantled.

“That was one thing that was brought home to us big time, children who depended on school for a routine, coming to school with their parents in the morning, being met by their Special Needs Assistants and meeting their special education teacher. That was majorly affected. In fairness, we have eight special education teachers in St Conaire’s and they’ve touched base with the children and parents separately to the class teachers. The children with autism are the ones we really need to watch out for.”

He had words of praise for the Department of Education, who he feels have been handling a difficult situation very well.

“I think the department is doing a good job in watching how schools in France and Denmark are reopening and they’re not jumping the gun on this. We’ve actually had contact from our local district inspector and they’ve been very helpful.”

Remote education for small children was not on most teachers’ radar a few months ago and they had to learn fast.

Peter says he is very pleased with how it has worked for his school. “Like everyone else, we didn’t have much time to prepare when the lockdown came. We managed to get packs out on March 12 and the teachers took the initiative in terms of things like working with SeeSaw, a thing called Reading A to Z, which we’ve imported from the States and gives access to thousands of books online, Khan Academy is a maths-based programme, while we also set up communications with the parents. We’re in touch with all of the children and families and the teachers and SNAs have done a phenomenal job working from home.

“We’re allowed to go into the school to facilitate the distance learning and we have to make sure everything is spotlessly clean. Our caretaker and our cleaner have been fantastic, as has our secretary working from home as well. Our board of management hold meetings through Zoom. We never did Zoom before; we’re almost experts now. We got lucky as well in that we had started a slow roll-out of Microsoft Teams and when the shutdown came, we ended up moving very fast.”

While everything won’t be the same as it was last March, he does expect that the school will be open as September begins. “Things will be different when we go back. There may be an element of distance learning or a difference in how we do things. We’re working to see if there are any gaps in the children’s learning, as I’m sure all schools are, and hopefully we will get them up to speed then come September. I’d be very hopeful that on September 1, we’ll be opening the doors and welcoming the children.”

Owen Ryan

About Owen Ryan

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Owen Ryan has been a journalist with the Clare Champion since 2007, having previously worked for a number of other regional titles in Limerick, Galway and Cork.