The nation heaved a huge sigh of relief while holding its breath at the same time.
It was a mix of excitement and apprehension as more than one-in-three of the country’s school pupils returned to classrooms for the first time since Christmas.
This must go well to allow every other pupil to get back to in-school lessons in the weeks ahead and, Easter aside, to ensure schools stay open all the way to the summer break.
No one will relax until the impact on public health of the return of about 340,000 pupils and their teachers is measured over the next week or so. Will infection rates surge again because so many people are moving about on a daily basis and/or because teachers and children are back in the classroom together?
It wasn’t the first day of the school year, but it felt like it as pupils’ reconnected with their friends and teachers, who stood in front of a class for the first time in more than two months.
At the 430-pupil Mary Mother of Hope Junior National School in Castaheany, west Dublin, the rich diversity of its pupil population was evident in children bearing bunches of flowers, honouring the Eastern European custom of presenting a bouquet to teacher on the first day of the school year.
If floral traditions relatively new to Irish education brought smiles, the familiar habit of parents lingering for a chat at the school gate was taboo – and it doesn’t appear to have been a problem. The message from everyone from Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn to school principals was for parents to ‘drop and dash’ or to ‘pick up and push on’.
The reopening education is not only about meeting target dates for the phased return, but doing everything possible to ensure that schools stay open. That means reducing the opportunity for infection within the school and within the wider community.
With a more contagious variant of Covid in circulation since last term, boards of management and staff are doubling down on efforts to minimise the risk of Covid getting into, or spreading, within schools. Parents are being asked to do that as well, not only by not stopping to chat outside the school, but by avoiding playdates.
Mary Mother of Hope principal Alma Moran described the much-anticipated return as “a very positive experience”.
”It was great to see the smiling faces and hear the voices in the building again. The children so happy to be back – they just slotted back into the routine again – and parents and staff were really happy too.”
She said while there was understandable concern about Covid transmission, everyone felt “the school is the right place to be from education, health and well-being perspectives”.
"The challenge now is to stay open so we need everyone in the community playing their part outside of school.”
At the 550-pupil St Thomas’ JNS, in Lucan, Co Dublin, principal Teresa Moynihan said most pupils were back.
Some parents and staff had been “quite anxious” but she spoke to them last week and offered reassurances about infection prevention and control measures in place and how well St Thomas’ had managed last term, when it had no transmission within the school itself.
“There was great excitement in the yard and among staff seeing each other again It was a great day and we hope we can continue in that vein,” said the principal.
Like her colleague at Mary Mother of Hope JNS, Ms Moynihan said the community and society at large had to play their part in ensuring schools stay open.
As classes drew to a close today, the verdict of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) was that “while it’s too early to assess in detail how day one has gone, it’s clear it has broadly been a success”.
Páiric Clerkin, CEO of the Irish Primary Principals Network (IPPN) said “everyone was relieved to get back but still there is anxiety that we can keep things safe and hope that those figures go down”. He said the day had gone smoothly and “there was nothing that couldn’t be sorted”.
At Gorey Community School, Co Wexford, the largest second-level school in the country, principal Michael Finn welcomed back around 260 Leaving Cert pupils and described the day as “really lovely”.
He said “the kids were delighted” and, on a personal note, it was “almost like my first day of being a principal again, the same level of excitement and anticipation”.
The principal said some members of the school community were worried and he had been a little concerned about attendance, but, in the event, there was a full return by pupils.
Conscious that students would be seeing many classmates for the first time since Christmas, he held an online assembly last Friday to reinforce the health-and-safety protocols and the need for vigilance. He had no concerns today. “Looking around the school, the vigilance was there,” he said.
But alongside all the excitement, there was huge disappointment for thousands of marginalised and vulnerable children and pupils with special needs in mainstream classes that have not returned, falling off the priority list for an early return.
With the next round of pupils due to return on March 15, teacher unions, principals, school management bodies and other education partners will be keeping a close eye on developments and a meeting with the Department of Education is expected later this week.
After today’s mass return, the first significant schools’ testing report will not come until next week, but there will be anecdotal evidence before then of any increase in infection rates.
The partners are also awaiting formal recommendations on issues such as the use of ventilation monitors and rapid Covid testing.