When snow appeared on the horizon earlier this week, one parent rang principal Niamh Corrigan to say that if necessary, she would ski to St Declan’s to get her child to the classroom today.
After weeks of school closures forced by Covid-19, it would have been doubly cruel for the weather to deal a blow to the return plans.
St Declan’s, on Northumberland Road in Ballsbridge, Dublin, is one of 124 special schools reopening today, the first in the education system to welcome pupils through the doors since they broke for the Christmas holidays.
The reopening protocols mean that, at any one time, only half of its 34 pupils will be on site, alternating on a two-day/three-day-a-week basis. St Declan’s offers specialised education for pupils with mild social, emotional and behavioural difficulties with the aim of facilitating their return to mainstream schools.
The principal reports a big difference between attitudes to returning to school a month ago, when Covid-19 transmission levels were very high, and now.
In early January, Ms Corrigan “could see anxiety among parents and staff. There were parents who had made the choice that their children would not be returning. Now it looks like all children will be returning and almost all the staff.”
Between teachers and special needs assistants (SNAs) the school has more than 20 staff and the principal said they and parents were all “very happy” with the control measures in place to keep Covid-19 out and to limit the spread of infection if it does manage to breach St Declan’s boundaries.
According to Ms Corrigan, “it’s been all hands on deck” preparing for the return since the Department of Education guidelines were issued last Wednesday.
Having implemented rigorous infection-control protocols last summer ahead of the September return, there was, she said, “a sense of déja vu, but this time we are doubling down on our efforts”.
Schools reopening now are dealing with a highly transmissible strain of the virus that had not been officially identified in Ireland when they closed before Christmas, so extra precautions are being taken.
That is why a maximum of 50pc of pupils in special schools will attend on any one day, and, at St Declan’s, while 12 children were allowed in the yard in first term, it is down to six now.
There are big changes for staff too. Last term, some very limited interaction was allowed in the staff room “but we are changing that even more, so there will be absolutely no crossover”, Ms Corrigan said. Bringing only half the pupils in on any one day has created space in the school to designate areas for staff use, including the PE hall and the library.
“It is challenging but we are looking forward to it. Myself and the management team have put in huge levels of work, and we are really delighted about children coming back. It’s a start,” the principal said.