At 8.30 am, around 1,600 masked students arrive at Gorey Community School, the largest school in the country. At each entrance they receive hand sanitiser from a pedal-operated dispenser overlooked by one of the school's Covid supervisors.
"Your mask?" says Michael Morris, the special educational needs co-ordinator, to one student.
Morris gives him a mask. It’s the first time he’s needed to do this this morning and he’s been here since 7.45am. “I’ll need two or three mugs of tea to warm me up this morning,” he says with a shiver.
Gorey Community School was founded in 1993 when three local schools amalgamated. There are 1,650 students and 160 staff here.
Principal Michael Finn walks me around the corridors explaining what has changed in this, the strangest term he's experienced in his 20 years working here. They have hired four "Covid supervisors", and four extra cleaning staff who clean throughout the day. They have staggered the breaks and lunches and instituted a one-way system around the school. There are arrows everywhere. To fit within Covid-19 guidelines class sizes have reduced to 24.
There are none of the Christmas musicals that usually mark the end of term (last year they did Les Mis), so this week “to dispel the gloom” there’s a busking competition during the breaks and a competition in which students compete to decorate classroom doors. I see a door that looks like the Coca-Cola Christmas ad truck and doors featuring life-sized effigies of teachers.
Irish teacher Teresa Kenny’s door features her face pasted onto Mrs Claus’s body with other teachers appearing as elves. Inside the class, new-age music is playing, and the children are meditating on what they’ve achieved that week.
'I find it all strange because I'm a very talkative person and there's less opportunity to talk. You have to keep moving and it's hard to hear people with the masks'
Mrs Kenny is the class tutor. She’s finding it hard, she says, to tell the first years apart with the masks. At her desk there’s a Perspex partition. Each time the students enter class they disinfect and spray their desks and they’re all seated separately instead of in the customary groups of four. The door and windows are open. The room is cold and the children are all wearing their coats. “I bought a special Covid coat, myself,” says Kenny.
Between classes the students are masked and distanced. There is constant cleaning. Deputy principal Stella Keogh pushes a door open with her sleeve. "My cardigans are ruined," she says. "The kids have adjusted really well but initially it felt like the life was sucked out of the place."
There are some positives, says Finn. He thinks the staff made huge leaps with technology. They ran classes online from March last year though there were hiccups. “When the students became more confident we discovered they were able to lock the teacher out of the class.”
During breaks, students gather to chat and shiver in the central quad which has been fitted with rain-proof marquees. Two girls are performing All I Want for Christmas is You, as part of the busking competition.
You mean the 'Covid supervisors'? 'The students call them Covid police'
Second-year student Joe Galvin is bringing up school council business with Michael Finn in the middle of the quad. "Some people are wondering about wearing [non-uniform] coats in class because it's colder," he explains to me afterwards.
Joe's friend Caragh Moore also ran for student council but didn't get elected. "I didn't mind if Joe won," she says. "I just wanted to beat the GAA lads."
Is it a weird year for them? “I find it all strange because I’m a very talkative person and there’s less opportunity to talk. You have to keep moving and it’s hard to hear people with the masks.”
Is it a relief taking the mask off after school? “I usually walk home with my mask on.”
Are they worried about the virus? “I have a lot of elderly people in my family so I have to be careful,” says Joe. “And we have some Covid police who go around making sure we wear them.”
You mean the “Covid supervisors”? “The students call them Covid police”.
Enda McDonald, one of the newly hired "Covid police", has two children in the school. "I get more hassle from them than anyone else. Ah, the kids are very good. I mean if you took a town like Abbeyfeale and stuck it into a box you'd get this school – it's nearly 2000 people – but somehow it works."
Every student I speak to is very glad to be in school but still struggles with the strangeness of it all. “You’re thinking, is this actually happening?” says transition-year student Josh O’Callaghan Doyle. “Seeing your friends in masks. Keeping all the windows open so you’re freezing.”
"There's a lot more being put on us this year," says Evan Flynn, who's in Leaving Certificate year. "In case there are predicted grades there's a lot more work to do. And we have to catch up on a lot of the stuff we missed last year."
So how do they blow off steam? He laughs. “We don’t,” he says.
It's strange for the staff too. Business teacher Lisa Nangle tells me how she moved from cloth masks to disposable ones so the kids could hear her better. More recently she's been using one of the microphones the school invested in and finds it stops her straining her voice.
'We're all used to it now. I sanitise the desk without even thinking about it'
In the staff room, all soft furnishings and easy chairs have been removed and just a handful of teachers sit there now, metres apart at socially distanced tables. Many teachers are now opting to eat in classrooms or in their cars, and some teachers haven't seen each other all year. "You'd miss the social aspect," says school cleaner Bibi Lawlor.
Across the day students tell me their feelings about wearing masks. Some like the masks in winter because they help keep them warm. One girl says she likes the masks because she doesn’t have to worry about what she looks like under them. Another girl says the masks cause her skin to break out. One boy hates them because they cause his glasses to fog up.
Special needs assistant and lead worker Martina Keogh says the masks are particularly difficult for children with special needs who struggle with facial expressions or have hearing or sight impairments. Everyone nonetheless wears their masks diligently. Many say they forget that they're wearing them.
In a woodwork class Charlie Lyons is sitting behind his Perspex screen critiquing the marquetry of a second-year student. "Masks are a real communication challenge," he says. "Especially for an elderly guy like me. If a student at the back wants to speak up it is tough for me. This is my final year and at 64 it's a worrying one."
Next to the café, five transition-year students are painting a mural. It features several characters from a videogame called Among Us riding in Santa's sleigh. It also has the words "Happy Christmas" rendered in English, Irish, Spanish, French, German, Italian, German, Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, Russian and Polish. "It represents the kids in the school so we're being as inclusive as possible," says Cody Copperthwaite.
Around the corner more transition-year students are working on some of the "Christmas doors." What do they get if they win the competition? "A great sense of pride," says Ben Harrison as he tries to hoist a sort of cardboard roof over his doorway.
"We're going to put Mr Finn's head on the Grinch's body," says Leah Cecil at the next door.
"It was Miss's idea not ours," says Sophie Waters.
Ben wanders up a corridor gently kicking a football with his friend Evan Harper. They miss sporting events. "I play for Wexford, " says Evan.
“You wouldn’t think it,” mutters Ben.
Before the midterm break Covid-19 cases in Wexford were spiking and at one point there were 18 cases in the school. “The Department of Public Health did a number of risk assessments, and the upshot was that they felt that the school had very robust measures in place,” says Finn.
Now there’s just one case, and that child was isolating for family reasons even before being infectious. Finn and his staff are pleased that they’ve made it through the term. He stresses how proud he is of the staff and students. “After the midterm you could feel the mood had lifted,” he says.
“We’re all used to it now,” a third year called Aoife O’Dowd tells me during the lunchbreak. “I sanitise the desk without even thinking about it.”
She’s one of several students I meet who are especially cautious because of vulnerable family members. “My mum had cancer but she’s cancer-free now.” Her mum has since temporarily moved in with her mother, Aoife’s grandmother, “so she doesn’t come too much in contact with us”.
They're all glad to be in school. They tell me that they've learned to read each others' moods despite the masks. Kayleigh Redmond Tomkins gestures at her friend Daniel Hayes. "Though you can't tell with Daniel, because he's so stoic."
It is a bit less fun, she says. “If a teacher asks a question it’s much harder for the whole class to get involved… And you’ll get caught talking to your friends in class now.” She brightens for a moment. “But if they don’t know your voice, they can’t see who’s talking because of the mask so your grand.” They all laugh. You can tell she’s smiling behind the mask.