Risk school? The thought terrified me. How could Norma Foley even consider it?

I want to sit my Leaving Cert. But Covid-19 is too much of a threat to my family’s health

Aoife Devlin: it’s hard to describe the fear of coronavirus when you live with someone in a high-risk category. Photograph: James Connolly

Aoife Devlin: it’s hard to describe the fear of coronavirus when you live with someone in a high-risk category. Photograph: James Connolly

 

The past week has been a roller coaster for Leaving Certificate students like me. The constant speculation about whether we’d be going back to school this term was not good for anyone’s mental health. Our year has already dealt with months of remote learning, and without any of the extracurricular activities that make life bearable. Now the exams that my classmates and I have been preparing for have been thrown into even more uncertainty with the closure of every school in Ireland.

But that wasn’t the shocking decision. The Government was right to shut schools. The decision that alarmed me was the one Minister for Education Norma Foley initially took, last week, to send Leaving Cert students back to school three days a week.

I have been working ferociously towards the exams for a long time, and they’re the best path for me to achieve what I want in terms of college and later life. But the importance attached to them had clearly reached a dangerous level. How could the Government even consider sending 60,000 students into cramped classrooms with the incidence of Covid-19 as high as it is?

As a Leaving Certificate student, I of course have an opinion on last summer’s grading debacle. To borrow a phrase from Norma Foley, it is my “firm” preference to sit a set of exams in June. I am aware that I am extremely lucky. I do not feel exceptionally behind in my studies after last year’s period of online learning. I had decent wifi, an internet device and my own study space, in my bedroom. For the most part my teachers engaged with us to the best of their abilities despite the uncertain territory. And, although other students want this year’s Leaving Cert results, like last year’s, to be based on their predicted grades, I do not feel this would benefit me at all. I want my results to be based on how I perform on the day, which I believe will be to the best of my ability.

The idea of attending school at a time when one in 122 people around the country was Covid-positive was terrifying

But the fear I felt in my stomach last Wednesday evening, when I saw the notification to say that the Cabinet was to announce a return to school for sixth-year students, was indescribable. I live with someone who’s in a high-risk category for contracting Covid-19. Since March last year I have had to be more careful than my friends when planning, during periods of more relaxed restrictions, any sort of social gathering. It has been extremely hard to watch others try to live semi-normal lives while I have had to exercise more caution.

The idea of attending school at a time when one in 122 people around the country was Covid-positive was terrifying. There are more than 120 people in my year at school, which is in Sligo, a town with more cases than the national average. There was no way I would be able to be in a classroom. It’s hard to describe the fear of coronavirus when you live with someone in a high-risk category. All I could think of the other day was the news that intensive care units would soon be at full capacity. The thought of the consequences of risking the infection of the people closest to me at a time when health resources are at breaking point was paralysing.

So the U-turn was a relief – but a relief that turned out to be short-lived. When the Minister maintained, on Prime Time last Thursday, that schools are safe environments, I was left with the impression that her decision to shut schools was not a true change of heart but merely a way to buy time to engage with the teachers’ unions.

Both Nphet and the World Health Organisation have said that schools are comparatively safe environments when community transmission is low. This is not the case currently – indeed, look across Europe and you’ll see closed schools everywhere. And even if classrooms themselves are safe, the hallways, lunchtimes and periods before and after school are where the risks emerge.

I am not going to prioritise the Leaving Certificate over the health and safety of my family and friends

Sending Leaving Cert students back into cramped classrooms while the rest of the country is being told to stay at home sends the message that the exams are important above all else. With that logic, and given that there is no provision for students who cannot attend school, it is not a stretch to see how a student might ignore symptoms to attend an important lesson, or to attend school despite having been told to self-isolate.

What I really want now is clarity. What are the Government’s contingency plans? What does it want the Leaving Cert to look like? And what impact does it think online learning is going to have?

Norma Foley has not addressed us, the students, at any stage. She has turned off the comments function on her Instagram page, where distressed students were turning to ask for help, support and clarification. I would like to see her engage with students and teachers in public rather than refer constantly to the “partners in education”.

In the meantime, I am not going to prioritise the Leaving Certificate over the health and safety of my family and friends. If this week’s events have taught me anything, it’s that some things are more important. Nobody’s life should be threatened by an examination.

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