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Life has not returned to normal in schools like St. Joseph's Secondary School for students like MollyJane Sweeney and her colleagues. Photograph by John Kelly.

Students glad restrictions eased but unresolved issues remain

A WAVE of relief swept over the country last Friday with Micheál Martin announcing the roll back of most of the restrictions made necessary by the pandemic.

But while he concluded it was time to be our social selves again, his message was tempered with a reality check; the pandemic is not yet over.

While many people will now be putting the episode behind them, the pandemic has left turmoil in a number of sectors in society, that will not be resolved any time soon.

Such as in secondary education, especially for the tens of thousands of students facing exams this year. Their preparation for these milestone exams has hardly been ideal.

MollyJane Sweeney, a student at St Joseph’s Tulla, told The Champion that while she too feels a sense of relief, like most people in the country at the moment, she does not feel that this is the end of the pandemic.

“Though the formal social distancing requirements and many other restrictions were lifted just this week, schools are still operating as they were – with distancing, and the use of lockers not
permitted, for example.

“It seems almost that students are separate from society, and that we are not experiencing those sighs of relief that the rest of society felt in the past few days,” said the Transition Year student.

MollyJane, Clare’s representative on the Irish Second-level Students Union (ISSU) observed that the pandemic has changed many areas of teenage life.

“As a teenager, I feel that I have missed out on so many experiences. From the lack of a normal social life that is crucial at this age, to the strange, unfamiliar way in which school has been operating, everything in my life became different. For the past few months, I have been missing out on a ‘normal’ Transition Year, with the all-important workshops, trips and social events being cancelled and postponed due to the restrictions.”

“Personally, I think it is important to recognise all of the many sacrifices that we, as teenagers, have made over the past two years.”

She did however acknowledge some positives such as the experience of online schooling advancing the digital skills of teachers and students alike.

Teachers became much more accessible than ever before through email, which proved helpful when looking for support about schoolwork.

“Another positive, in my experience, is the many competitions and events that have ‘gone virtual.’ This has opened up lots of opportunities for students, who may not have been able to attend or enter certain things because of travel problems in the past. Workshops, seminars and youth groups are much more accessible now that they offer a digital option.”

She warned, however, that there are still many important issues for students that have not, in her view, been dealt with properly.

For example, students are still unsure about what will happen with this year’s Leaving Certificate.

“The ISSU is campaigning for a Hybrid Leaving Certificate on the basis of our survey, in which 68% of senior cycle students called for that model to be implemented,” said MollyJane.

“It is important to recognise the severe effects that the pandemic has had on all students, particularly those due to sit their Leaving Certificate exams this summer, and we feel that the Department needs to take action and respond to our concerns.”

“In the same survey, nearly 49% of students wished for an online class option to help with absences related to Covid-19. The lack of an alternative for isolating students has been going on for too long and needs to be addressed promptly.”

While acknowledging that the ISSU has been present at stakeholder meetings, giving a great opportunity, she said, to represent students’ voices, she does not feel that their concerns and propositions were being addressed seriously enough.

“We need to be listened to,” she said, “as we are some of the people most affected by Department of Education decisions.

“By voicing our concerns in an organised, structured way through the ISSU, the Department must recognise our maturity, and seriously listen to our perspective.”

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