WITH the evenings having started to shorten, planning is well underway for the most complicated back to school season in living memory.
Large schools in particular are going to find opening up in the time of Covid-19 a most difficult challenge, with a huge amount of measures having to be taken.
St Conaire’s principal Peter Walsh said work is well underway and he is quite confident that the school will be ready. “We’re moving all the furniture and following the Department’s Road Map for social distancing and things like that. We were over in Zimmer, we saw how they operated and we got that insight which was excellent. They very generously gave us hand sanitizer, markings, signage, things like that. We’re in good enough shape, we will be ready and we fully intend to reopen on the 31st, we’ve got great help from the staff, the caretaker, the teachers have been coming in and out and we’ll have the parents involved as well. We’re as happy as we can be at the moment.”
They probably will stagger opening times to reduce the risks of the virus being spread as students arrive and depart. “We’re just working on that at the moment. We’re fortunate that we have a lot of entrances and exits. We probably will have to do something on that initially, but we’re just working on that at the moment.”
Never before were these type of challenges faced, and he says there has been a lot of co-operation between all involved in education. “It’s unprecedented and we’re all in the same boat, all the principals. We’re working well with the INTO and the IPPN, supporting each other. There’s a fantastic network there and in Shannon all the principals come together and discuss things and try and help each other out. There’s a great commonality of purpose.”
Should the spread of Covid-19 not increase very much in the wider community in the next couple of weeks, he feels reopening is likely. “People are moving heaven and earth to make it happen. I suppose it depends on how Covid is in the community. At the moment we can control and mitigate as much as we can and hope that in the community it’s not going to worsen.”
As difficult as it is to get national schools ready, there are even more complications at second level, where students typically move between different classrooms many times a day.
St Caimin’s school principal Alan Cunningham said that a lot of work is going into doing everything possible to allow his school to reopen as safely as possible. “It’s extremely difficult, we’re at it flat out at the moment, all day every day. It’s just a case of making as many changes as we possibly can to make the place as safe as we possibly can for students and staff. You are trying to move mountains in two or three weeks.”
The time scale might be daunting, but he feels it would have been very hard no matter how long there was. “It’s like everything, we’d all like more time, but a lot of the stuff we’re being asked to do is extremely difficult to do anyway. Buildings are buildings, they were built to a certain spec, for a certain movement of students and so on and so forth. We’re trying to completely change the way the building is used and that’s not as straightforward as it sounds. Socially distancing isn’t as easy as it looks or sounds. We’d have 750 students in the building with 50 or 60 staff and it’s going to be a completely new world, a new world for teachers, a new world for students and we’re still working our way through it.”
Of course students have to move regularly, which has to be planned for. “At Leaving Cert level they’d only be in a base class once or twice a week. All other classes are mixed, there’s different levels of Irish, English and Maths and different options. They’re never together, so the idea of putting them all into one room at nine o’clock and having them stay there until 4pm is just not a runner. Now at junior cycle level, in first or second year they might have the same timetable when they might have English, followed by Irish, followed by Maths, so they could stay in the same room for three periods. By the nature of a school it has to move and we’d have over half our students come by bus.”
The way students traverse the school will have to be adjusted. “We’re going with a one way system, change the layout of the school, we won’t have kids coming against each other, the same with our stairs, one for going up and one from going down.”
Is this the toughest challenge schools have ever had to face? “This is my first year in this job, so I couldn’t really comment, but for my first year it’s enough!” laughed Alan. “In fairness there is great support from the Department and there is a financial package to help move things forward, but it is going to be a challenge,” he added.
Lunch times will be staggered and use of the staffroom won’t be possible in the way it once was.
A big challenge will be dealing with students who present with illness. While this happens very regularly anyway, it is different this year, in that every sick student has to be treated as someone who potentially has Covid-19 and be isolated.
Online learning kept some engagement between schools and students during lockdown, and its likely to be used to a certain extent in St Caimin’s. “If there’s a room that can have only 24 and there is 30 in the class, then we’re looking at on a rotation basis having six go to an area where they would basically take part in the class remotely.”
While a huge effort has been made, and teachers have tried to forecast what will be required, it’s likely more adjustments will become apparent only after the new school year gets underway.