One teacher is hoping for the best but says she cannot understand why the government took so long to release the ‘return to school’ plans.
BEFORE SCHOOLS CLOSED on 12 March, Ireland’s much loved Leaving Certificate poet Eavan Boland was still with us. In her poem, Love, she perfectly captures our affinity with the past.
Reflecting on her desire to return to that precious time in her life where she lived in Iowa with her husband Kevin Casey, she realised that despite the intensity of her desire, the past can never be repeated. The past, she asserts ‘walk(s) away’ from us and we ‘cannot follow’.
It would be wonderful if the government’s roadmap for our safe return to education could miraculously direct us back to the past and that we could return to school under normal circumstances.
Everyone wants to return to the past where things felt easier and life was spontaneous. Yet, one of the stark realities of Covid-19 is that for now at least, the past feels like a blurry shadow and normality is particularly elusive these days.
We’ve all grown accustomed to the changes this virus has forced upon us. We queue for everything. We wear masks. Government announcements about the dangers of interpersonal activities echo our safety in a world that the poet Sylvia Plath once likened to the ‘province of the stuck record’.
Life is different now. Our return to education will be different too.
The government’s comprehensive document outlining the procedures that will be implemented for our safe return to school clearly indicates the changes that await us when we return to education.
These recommendations will inevitably impact the normal parameters of school life. Our efforts to minimise the risk of infection in schools will result in changes that will undoubtedly affect social interactions.
Just like most public spaces in this post-Covid world, hand sanitisers and yellow Covid-19 signs will decorate our school buildings. Social-distancing will be encouraged. Students will be advised to maintain at least one metre distance between one another.
Typical gatherings which were once part of school life will be discouraged. Purposeful and swift movements to our places of learning will be required by all. Casual chats and catch-ups between classes will be similarly diluted.
Lessons will be delivered, where possible, to groups of students in their base classes. The plan suggests that it will be mostly teachers moving about the building with only small groups of students moving for elective lessons. Face masks will not be mandatory unless social distancing cannot be maintained.
Despite the nation’s heroic efforts to eradicate it, this deadly virus still lurks in our community and continues to threaten the freedoms we once enjoyed and possibly took for granted.
Right now principals all around the country are carefully examining the government’s guidelines and considering how best to implement these recommendations in their specific places of learning.
Implementing policy is part of a principal’s DNA. Most are experts in this field. All will ensure that the government’s recommendations are executed with precision.
Schools are, as the government’s guidelines assert, both places of learning and employment. These guidelines have finally been released with the sole purpose of returning to education in a sustainable way that will prevent the spread of Covid-19 in our schools. Nobody wants to return to remote learning.
Our principals are adept administrators and their commitment to careful and considerate policy implementation may be remarkable, but the guidelines released by the government are very challenging.
A mammoth challenge
There is a huge amount of work to get through in a very short amount of time. A quick glance at the government’s documentation outlines 55 comprehensive steps all principals must complete before students return to the second level places of learning.
Even though each school will appoint a lead worker representative who will work alongside principals to manage Covid-19 protocols, the tasks that must be completed are still mighty.
A Covid-19 Response Plan for each individual school setting will be established. Training days for all staff members will be organised. Parents and students will be informed of all safety protocols. Contact tracing logs will be implemented. Emergency and risk assessments will be updated. Programmes for learning including TY and LCA will be adapted.
Classrooms will be reconfigured to maximise space. Timetables will be amended in line with social distancing guidelines. Steps will be taken to restrict student movement around the school. Canteen breaks will be staggered. PPE, hand sanitisers and cleaning products for all classrooms will be purchased. The list continues and time is not on their side.
My own school
Like many second-level schools around Ireland, my own school is still in the process of recruiting teachers for mainstream classes. A quick search on EducationPosts.ie suggests that lots of schools are in a similar position.
Many schools are in the process of recruiting guidance counsellors, a position that is particularly hard to fill even in normal circumstances. Some schools are in the process of recruiting principals and deputy principals who will most certainly hit the ground running as soon as they are hired.
Since phase one of the reopening of our country was announced on 15 May our return to school has maintained a fixed position on this agenda. It’s baffling why our government took so long to release these guidelines.
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So much of our success in implementing these measures will undoubtedly depend upon collaboration from parents and students. I expect that information campaigns will be released by the Department of Education.
These will undoubtedly emphasise one important aspect that the success of this sustainable agreement depends upon; those who are ill must be encouraged to stay at home.
Stephen Hawking describes intelligence as our ability to adapt to change, and our educational endeavours will depend upon intelligent solutions to continue educating students throughout this crisis.
Getting to school
Travelling to schools will similarly require some innovation. The catchment area for my own school is vast and so many of our students depend on school transport. The success of our social distancing endeavours in school will depend upon maintaining social distance while travelling to school. We’ll need more buses. Without them, this plan may fail.
The success of this academic year will similarly depend upon adapting courses to account for the loss of learning due to school closures. This issue has already been raised by the Irish Secondary Schools Union (ISSU) – powerful advocates throughout the pandemic.
The union has also requested a review of examinations for all subjects at both Junior and Senior Cycle. Examinations will need to be reimagined; many students are hoping that our examination system will finally be reformed.
Anxiety and school are a terrible but all-too-familiar combination. Steps will need to be introduced to reduce anxiety when we return to school. The government’s announcement concerning the recruitment of additional guidance counsellors is a welcome inclusion to this plan.
Their assistance in establishing whole school wellbeing initiatives will be essential this year. Primary school students transitioning to second-level will also require particular care and attention. A staggered return to school at the start of the year could help to facilitate this.
We must not forget the Leaving Class of 2020 who were abruptly evacuated from school on 12 March. These students, who left without a proper graduation, who never got to wear the all-important school hoody on the last day of school are due to receive their results during what will inevitably be a chaotic week. They must be carefully considered in this process.
There’s no doubt that life sometimes takes unexpected turns that lead us in directions we never expected. This is particularly true for all students and their families in Ireland. I do have faith that the government’s roadmap will guide us toward our safe return to school. But we cannot lose sight of what’s at stake if it is not implemented correctly. We need everyone on board.
Despite the nefarious presence of Covid-19 in our community, we have slowly emerged from the hibernation of lockdown and life has resumed, albeit on a different scale. I hope September brings some positive routines for us all.