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A nervous return to the classroom

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Sinead Grimes, Principal, St Edward's in Ballytivnan

Sinead Grimes, Principal, St Edward's in Ballytivnan

Sinead Grimes, Principal, St Edward's in Ballytivnan

The need for our schools to reopen was one of the new government's main priorities since taking office in June.

National guidelines to ensure a safe environment for students, teachers and parents put a major onus on schools at national and secondary level around the country, but having completed a first full week the new measures are beginning to settle in.

For one local national school, St Edward's in Ballytivnan, the end of the first full week of classes was a milestone they were glad to meet.

"We've got a great sense of accomplishment on completing our first week back," school principal Sinéad Grimes told The Sligo Champion.

"It's very different, it has been an incredible year in every sense of the word and getting reopened has been nothing short of a herculean task. We've had to reinvent and repurpose every aspect of the school, how we interact with children in class, so it looks very different."

The school day is somewhat different in the new academic year. Pods and groups in various classes, staggered lunch breaks, different start times and various other initatives are among those to have been introduced across the country.

For St Edward's, Ms Grimes says that they had a headstart of sorts over other schools with good quality facilities and space among the advantages.

"The classes are all in separate bubbles so they don't interact with each other, they remain separate in their own room and they work with a small number of teachers and support staff within those rooms," Ms Grimes explained.

"Then from third to sixth class, in their rooms they are in separate pods within their bubbles and those children work together. Once we got the guidelines towards the beginning of the summer we took a deep breath and we realised that we actually had a lot of advantages and we looked to our strengths of the school and we stood back and looked at what we had to try and make it work.

"We have a modern building with large classrooms, we have low class numbers. Our biggest class number is 19 and our smallest is 12 so that was one of our strengths. We have a lot of outdoor space so we started from there in reimagining what school would look like.

"There have been a lot of challenges as well, the timeframe has been very short between guidelines arriving and trying to put them in place, there have been challenges around the government's procurement system and trying to get supplies and equipping schools, that has been difficult but we have had great support from local suppliers and tradespersons and all of that has helped hugely in getting reopened."

The challenge of returning to school in the midst of Covid-19 after a six month absence led to a certain degree of nervousness amongst children, parents and staff in recent months. However, Ms Grimes says that the reaction of the pupils at St Edwards has been exemplary as they adjust to school life once again.

She said: "We are all delighted and just amazed at how well our children have got on with this and coped with this.

"They've been living with this new world with their families at home and they have just completely run with all the changes here. They are just pros at using sanitisers and washing their hands repeatedly. One thing I was worried about was how they would react to having seen their teachers with masks or visors but they are accustomed to seeing adults in the outdoor world in masks and they have 100pc understanding. We've been incredibly proud of them, they have carried us through this and they have given us an immense sense of accomplishment and pride in getting reopened."

"The pressure of teachers and staff has been immense. Having to reinvent everything we do in the classroom, from how we interact with children to how we move about the school to having to separate staff in different times for break time, that has been difficult. While there have been challenges, people have been very creative and resourceful in meeting those challenges."

Ms Grimes also praised the contribution of parents too as they prepared their children for the return to school.

"Parents have been a very important part of this because they have been an absolutely fantastic support. I've been talking to them throughout reopening, before reopening and after and I've heard their anxieties and their worries, but they've been a huge support.

"They have placed their faith in us and we have placed our faith in them as well. We have a great community here in Ballytivnan and they are 100pc playing their part and that has been such a crucial element in getting reopened."

Contact

The Home School Community Liason (HSCL) Coordinator at St Edward's is Aisling Browne. Through her role, Ms Browne has been in regular contact with parents throughout the course of the pandemic, and she says the ability to meet the parents face-to-face - socially distanced - is a major step in the right direction.

"My role in the school is to support parents," Ms Browne explained to The Sligo Champion.

"During lockdown it has been very difficult and parents needed a lot of support. It was hard to maintain that connection but it was important to retain it. I would have done a lot of daily phone calls to parents and parents would have been able to contact me. We would have done some home visits, socially distancing, and delivered prepared work packs the teachers prepared to houses and pupils. Not having that face-to-face connection was hard,"

"It's great to see the children and their parents back at the school gates again, it's a very positive thing, something we didn't know we would see. Here at St Edward's we're such a community, the school is such a big part of the community. In my role, to be able to go out and socially distanced chat to parents in the car park and reconnect with them it's wonderful for them, it's wonderful for the children and it's wonderful for us the staff."

The first days of the students back at St Edward's was preceded by natural nervousness, Ms Browne says, but as the days have gone on children, parents and staff have settled in and taken on board the requirements of their new routine.

"There was a lot of natural anxiety and nervousness, not just by the children but by the parents as well. I'm a parent myself and there was a sense of the unknown and facing into the unknown for all of us but we would have done a lot of work before the school reopened. I would have been in touch with them by phone and informing them of the work that was being done to reopen the school and Sinead would have done newsletters and that.

"Going up to the car park and chatting to the parents in the morning and listening to them and helping them to understand that it's OK to be worried, we're all a little bit worried."

"But the big thing is that we're all in this together, and once parents know that and that the children's safety, family safety and community safety is our priority here, that we're working hard to deliver, that sense of community and communication of trying to keep everyone safe. People are less anxious now, people are happy to see their children and children bounding in the

gates in the morning excited to be back in school. Ms Browne added that like everything, routine plays a big part in ensuring students are happy, an in turn, parents are happy too.

"As the days go on the children are more confident and into the routine of sanitising and hand washing and the parents are less anxious and just delighted to see some bit of normality."

With 130 students in total at St Mary's Secondary School Ballisodare, the school believes itis better placed than most to be able to introduce social distancing measures.

Relieved

Principal Anthony Carty says students are now happy to be back.

"We didn't know how they would be. We could sense their concerns, but people are very relieved to be back." Before the return staff did training with students on the Microsoft Teams App and informed them of all measures in place before their return. Those measures include staggered breaks, sanitisation stations in hallways and the wearing of face coverings, to name just a few.

The principal said the Teams App will also allow a seamless transition back to online learning if schools close again. Explaining other measures and tweaks to the school, Mr Carty said all classrooms now only contain desks and as lockers are no longer on site, each student has their own container underneath their desk for books and materials.

To reduce the movement of students, each class has their own room, or at a maximum must only travel to the next room.

"We've been looking at things practically, and we will continue as long as we can. It's a precious thing to be in school right now."

The school has been spread out in such a way that all years have their own designated section, and if, there comes a point where someone requires isolation, a designated isolation room has been set up at the back of the school.

"We have a prefab set up for isolation and a student can go there and be supervised before being picked up, there'll be minimum fuss.

"Students can have flu or cold symptoms and it will be part of our day."

The principal said it was "go, go go" once the guidelines were announced at the end of July, but said it was important to get to the starting line with a plan.

"I think our plan is very clear."

Since welcoming students back last week, Mr Carty said attendance has been "near perfect".

"We will have conversations with parents and students who have concerns or anxieties.

"We are minimising risk as much as possible and would like students to come in."

Mr Carty said he can understand parents are worried with watching media reports in relation to Covid-19, but he said the environment at St Mary's is one which is "safe and happy."

"This is an environment where people can learn. We're still the same school," the principal added.

With Leaving Cert results out yesterday (Monday), Mr Carty said staff were positive in the way in which this year's unprecedented situation was handled.

With 21 Leaving Certs due to sit their exams last June, Mr Carty said his staff engaged in the process in an extremely professional way, ensuring that students got fair and accurate grades.

Nationally the trend is one which will be in students' favour with an overall 4% rise in grades.

The Government had agreed to the removal of the use of schools' Leaving Cert track records in the years 2017-19 as a key measure in deciding how this year's candidates would have fared had they sat the exams.

This was the issue that caused a recent furore over A-Level results in the UK, where it emerged that a similar measure was seen to be unfair to high-attaining pupils in schools in disadvantaged communities.

While teachers' marks were reined in in many cases, in many others they were increased, and overall the 2020 results will show a level of grade inflation higher than would normally be.

Students who took a year out after sitting the Leaving Cert in 2019 fear they may now miss out on college places due to the controversial calculated grades system.

Clarity

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin MEP Chris MacManus has called on the Department of Education to provide greater clarity to teachers, staff and parents if schools are to remain open.

MacManus said: "The current model will not be sustainable if the department fail to implement tangible guidelines and policy for those on the front line.

"In the past week since schools started reopening we've witnessed a scattering of new cases amongst children in attendance. This could easily escalate into a situation where hundreds of families have to stay at home with a child who must isolate."

"Teachers and families need to have confidence that the Department of Education is on top of this issue and providing clear leadership and guidance.

"Decisive action now will prevent an escalation in the coming months."

"We need to see priority testing and we need to ensure that we protect jobs and incomes of families where children must stay home.

"On a broader level we need to address existing issues like reducing class sizes, tackling teacher shortages, and ensuring no child is left behind," said MacManus.

Sligo Champion