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Down coach and school teacher Steven Poacher slams 'contradictory' Covid-19 policy in North's schools


Down minor coach and school teacher Steven Poacher. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Down minor coach and school teacher Steven Poacher. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile


Down minor coach and school teacher Steven Poacher. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Two Gaelic football coaches working as teachers have severely criticised the Stormont Executive for their muddled messages over children's education during the coronavirus crisis.

Steven Poacher, currently with the Down minor team and previously a coach with Carlow, is teaching in St Joseph's school in Newry. His wife Marie is also a teacher in Tyrone and he finds himself at odds with the Northern Ireland government's approach of retaining some students in the schools.

While the GAA shut down all activity under their auspices from Thursday, March 12, Poacher found himself on a pitch with schoolchildren the day after.

"That afternoon, on the Friday, I had 60 kids on the field for an hour and a half doing PE because the guidance we were given from the government at that time was to continue PE," Poacher said.

"That's been the whole frustration of the thing. The contradictory nature of it and the actual lack of clarity from anybody; it's been phenomenal."

He and his wife have two daughters and as he explained: "It's a sad state of affairs when you have to explain to your kids that they are not allowed any social contact with their friends, which is completely against the norm for a young child.

"But then you are expected to go into school on Monday and continue with a possibility of having hundreds of kids there. You are expected to social-distance them, target them individually, it's absolute madness.

"There's been no risk assessment done, no guidance, no advice on handwashing, on masks, protective clothing. Particularly in an urban school, a town school. They all live together in the same area, they come into school together. So, it is quite worrying, to be fair."

Former Fermanagh goalkeeper - now goalkeeping coach - Ronan Gallagher is principal of St John's Primary School in Middletown, Armagh and he found himself dismayed at the mixed messages being received all last week.

"There's a lot of confusion and then most principals took it into their own hands to sort of close last week anyway," he said. "That was the case almost right across the Maintained sector. In the Controlled sector, some of them were open. The Royal School in Armagh was open last week.

"There was an element of 'taking it into our own hands' so to speak. Because of the genuine stress and anxiety felt by parents and by staff members as well.

"I think had the action not have been called and the announcement not been made, a lot of the schools would have taken next week anyway to try to stay off for as long as possible. It seemed nonsensical that everywhere was closed and yet schools were staying open.

"There is a lot of discussion around home learning, packs that children have been sent home with. But teaching is about more than filling out worksheets. It is not just about managing homework. There is a whole lot more to school in terms of children's self-esteem, children being successful, motivated, challenged. A whole raft of things in the day that people are missing in this."

The dithering up until now has been a failure of politics, Gallagher believes. "I think Michelle O'Neill coming out, even though it was her own opinion, that really sent shockwaves of worry through a lot of society," he stated.


"I don't think her comments were helpful. At the time she might well have been right, but it was just really disappointing that from a government point of view they couldn't agree on how to manage the situation. It did become an orange and green issue for a few days there. That was really disappointing."

He continued: "Even Peter Weir (NI Education Minister) on the radio, he was saying that schools would be open for children of key workers. The theory of it is OK but the practicalities are this; let's say we have a nurse here that has children. The kids will be dropped off here at 9 o'clock, so she will be at work at half past. The children will need picked up at 3 o'clock, so the nurse will have to leave work at half two. What nurse works from half nine to half two?"

In the meantime, teachers are delivering 'virtual lessons' to schoolchildren who are not attending school.

"We just encourage the kids to stay active," explained Poacher.

"My own two go walking every day, there is a trampoline out the back, they do a wee bit of ball skills work off the wall. We have posted wee videos on the school's Facebook account with a wall and a ball.

"Joe Wicks (online exercise coach) has come out now with a free online session which is a fantastic kick-start to the day. But the biggest thing in this is routine. Children need routine, and if you fall out of routine, you always see the parents saying by the end of a holiday that they cannot wait to get their children back at school."

Irish Independent

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