Back to school ... but to what? ‘We’ve been in purgatory since March’

Teachers, pupils and staff are unsure what’s waiting for them when they return after almost six months away due to covid-19.

The principal

Matt Melvin, principal of St Etchen’s National School in Kinnegad, Co Westmeath, is busy spray-painting social distancing warning signs onto the tarmac of the playground.

There are smiley faces with “stay safe” slogans; multicoloured footprints spaced two metres apart; jaunty signs reminding pupils to sanitise their hands at the dispensers.

It’s a delicate balancing act: welcoming back anxious students after a six-month enforced absence – as well as warning them that school life has changed dramatically.

“We’re trying to set a tone to show that we’re conscious of safety. But we’re also trying to welcome and reassure children and give them time to settle into the routine of school again.”

Matt Melvin, principal of St Etchen’s National School, Kinnegad, Co Westmeath, preparing the school for reopening. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell
Matt Melvin, principal of St Etchen’s National School, Kinnegad, Co Westmeath, preparing the school for reopening. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell

Like all other schools, the rhythm of the school day at St Etchen’s will change radically.

There will be staggered entry and exit times each day for classes; parents will be asked to remain in their cars when dropping off children; pupils will be grouped into pods and class bubbles; teachers will be asked to stay in their classroom at break-time; swimming, football, athletics, drama and music will all cease until it is safe to do so; school tours and field trips will be put on ice.

It will all take its toll on school life – but Melvin feels they are small sacrifices to help reopen schools.

“There’s normally great excitement and optimism in the yard in the morning,” says Melvin.

“There’s lots of hustle and bustle. Parents meet up and shoot the breeze . . . it will be a shame to lose that, but the changes are very doable.”

“It’s a terrible shame to have to curtail all our after-school activities. The range and scope of them is what defines us as a school. It sells us to the wider community. What will happen to music, the choir, tin-whistle practice? It’s hard to know.”

Melvin says St Etchen’s is, in many ways, a microcosm of Irish society – and will face the kind of challenges that most schools will encounter.

“We’re a diverse school – about 20 per cent are non-Catholic, 15 per cent are non-Irish national. We’ve the children who will go onto Clongowes and the ones who might end up selling drugs. We’ve all the problems and advantages of Irish society.”

He wonders, for example, how the class bubble system will operate in practice, especially given that children from similar backgrounds or nationalities – but different classes – often hang out together in the yard.

“A lot of the conversation among parents and children is, ‘who’ll be in my child’s pod’, or ‘who won’t be’,” he says.

The school is finally due to reopen fully on Thursday, August 27th. The school secretary and caretaker have played a vital role in getting the school ready. Melvin is looking forward to the big day.

“It’s feels like we’ve been in purgatory since March . . . finally, we’ll get to reopen. There is huge anticipation among the kids to get back. They’ll be delighted. There’s excitement and apprehension. We want it all to go well. We won’t want to be the school that doesn’t do something right and causes the whole house of cards to fall.”


The junior infant

Eva Belle Bradshaw (4) is worried about her first day in big school.

She’s not too concerned about going to a strange school, with children she doesn’t know, or lots of rules around hand-washing and distancing. No, she’s worried that her mammy will miss her too much.

“So, I drew a picture of mammy and me, playing football. It’s on the livingroom wall. It’s there in case she misses me when I’m at school,” she says.

Her mother, Julie, laughs,

It’s a reminder, she says, of how parents are often more anxious around the reopening of schools than the children.

“We’re definitely more worried than she is. We’ve tried to shelter her from any concerns connected with coronavirus, or the chance of school shutting down if there’s a second wave. But she’s just excited to be going to school and finally getting to meet new friends and socialise,” says Julie, a mother of two from Arklow, Co Wicklow.

The first day of school is likely to be very different for parents of junior infants.

While mothers and fathers traditionally accompany their children into class on the first day, with teary photographs, followed by teas and coffees with other parents, none of this will happen this year.

In most cases, children will be met at the school gates by a teacher or principal, who will guide them into their new classroom.

Parents, in most schools, are being asked to stay off the school premises this year, unless there are exceptional reasons.

The first day in school may also be a bigger jolt for many children.

In recent years, junior infants have tended to breeze into school on their first day. With two years of preschool under their belt, they are well accustomed to the classroom and being separated from their parents.

But most of this year’s cohort of new junior infants have been out of early years settings for six months – an eternity for children of this age. They have also missed out on familiarisation visits to school. Tearful goodbyes at the school gates, then, look much more likely this year.

In Eva Belle’s case, however, her parents feel she’ll be fine.

“We’re fortunate that she’s a confident child and very sociable. She’ll be glad to see other children. I have friends who are very concerned for their children and worry about how they’ll cope after spending so much time at home.

“In terms of the first day, we’re disappointed we won’t be able to be in the classroom on the first day, but it is what it is.”

Christelle Bekcombo, at teacher at Le Chéile secondary school in Tyrellstown, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Christelle Bekcombo, at teacher at Le Chéile secondary school in Tyrellstown, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

The teacher

Christelle Bekombo feels a tinge of excitement, laced with apprehension, when she thinks about returning to the classroom.

“It’s been such a long time. There is a side of me that is really excited. This is the job I chose to do,” says the 26-year-old French teacher. “But I do worry about how all the changes will affect teaching: the communications, the distance, all of that.”

Teaching, she says, isn’t simply standing at the top of the class dispensing wisdom: it’s about trust, relationship-building, engagement.

“Proximity to students is an important part of teaching for me,” she says. “If a student is struggling, you sit in beside them and show them how to do the exercise. It shows a level of care and interest. So, I’d be worried that some will fall behind and feel that I’m not treating them as being important.

“For first years, especially. They’ve come from primary where they are used to teachers providing help on a one-to-one basis. So, I just hope there are other ways we can make all students feel valued and important in the classroom.”

The fact that secondary students are being required to wear face masks may also hinder some of the natural communication in class.

Bekombo, originally from Cameroon, is relatively new to teaching.

She fully qualified last March just as her school – Le Chéile Secondary School in Tyrrelstown, northwest Dublin – shut down.

Teaching online, she says, was very hard.

Even though the school was fortunate in that all children had iPads, it still meant approaching and preparing for teaching in new ways. It was also a struggle to engage all students.

“There are so many different learners. Some learn best from listening to you in class, others absorb video or songs online better. You could see online that some were falling back and not logging into classes enough. As a teacher, you want all your students to be a success and fulfil their potential. So, it was hard to see some falling behind.”

She says her emphasis will be on getting those at-risk students back in class and consolidating their learning before moving on to new topics. Learning loss, she says, will be inevitable.

“The old saying is that practice makes perfect. If you haven’t practiced, it will be a challenge. Some will struggle, but that’s my job to help them catch up.

“I’d be more worried about students psychologically. Everything stopped so suddenly for then. They now have to adapt to a new routine.”

As for any worries for her health back in the classroom? She’s not too worried.

“I’m very fortunate. I’m not a frontline nurse. So, I’m not so much worried as excited. I just want to get back to the job that I love.”

Olivia Lyons (12). She is due to start first year in secondary school.
Olivia Lyons (12). She is due to start first year in secondary school.

The first-year student

Olivia Lyons’s last day of primary school ended abruptly when her class was preparing a game show in Irish for Seachtain na Gaeilge.

“Then, the teachers came in and gave us sweets and said we’d be shutting down the school for two weeks . . . I had a feeling then that we might not be coming back in,” says the 12-year-old, from Kilmore in north Dublin.

There was an initial exhilaration – followed by a dawning realisation of what they had lost: friendships, graduation ceremonies and end-of-school milestones.

“I found being out of the class hard. I missed school and seeing my friends and classmates in the yard,” she says.

It will be weird trying to make friends staying two metres apart

The remote learning which replaced the classroom was okay – but it wasn’t the same.

“I had ClassDojo on my phone and we were given work for a week, or a project to do. I found it easy to get done, but others’ didn’t . . . it was harder to learn new things. We did projects and new stuff, just not as much as we would have.”

Despite the challenges, she feels school ended on a high: teachers organised a virtual graduation ceremony. All her classmates took part in a online talent show. The pupils got robes and commemorative hoodies with all their names on it.

“It was a nice touch – they tried really hard to make it really nice,” she says,

Now, she’s preparing for her first day in secondary school.

Even in normal times it might be daunting – but this time there are a host of other uncertainties.

“I’m not sure what school will be like,” she says. “I’m not used to wearing a face mask. And it will be weird and awkward seeing friends, or making new ones while staying one or two metres apart. It might be harder to get to know people.”

There will also be changes getting to school. Secondary students will be asked to wear face masks on school buses and stay seated close to the same people each day.

For a while, she says, she did feel sad about how school life is going to be different for her generation – but she’s got over that.

“It did feel unfair at the start. It would nice if everyone got a nice ending and a good start in secondary. But we can’t change anything,” she says.

“I’ve met up with a good few friends after the lockdown. We went to the shops and to the park to play football. We’re back playing matches now, and a lot of the girls on my team will be going to my secondary school.”

Carol McSherry who works as a SNA in a primary school in Navan, Co Meath. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell
Carol McSherry who works as a SNA in a primary school in Navan, Co Meath. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell

The special needs assistant

In a world of social distancing, Carol McSherry’s role as a special needs assistant requires working side-by-side with vulnerable children.

“We’re there for the care and safety of children. It can be pupils with epilepsy, diabetes. Many are immuno-compromised. If some of these children got Covid-19, it would be catastrophic,” says McSherry, who is based in Co Meath.

“We’re helping some children with toileting or intimate care needs. We’re helping children to be included in the class, assisting them with pencil grip, looking out for trip hazards.”

This support cannot be carried out at a distance – so the latest public health guidelines advised wearing a visor or face mask when physical distancing is not possible.

The official guidance is vague, she says, so it will be a case of adapting to individual circumstances.

Another unanswered question is whether she will be assigned to a class bubble and required to avoid mixing with children outside it. But this, she says, simply won’t be possible.

“There is no way I can be based in just one class. Most special needs assistants support several children in a school across different classes,” she says,

“I think sometimes that the people who make these decisions don’t realise the work we need to do behind the scenes.”

What is encouraging, she says, is that schools which reopened to support children with special needs during the summer – known as July provision – were able to make the new rules work.

“I did the summer programme myself for two weeks, wearing a mask and it worked. It wasn’t ideal – I ended up having to read books upside down, and couldn’t point to things easily. It was awkward, but doable.”

She also has worries about how classes will cope with rising levels of sick leave among staff. Despite these concerns, she is looking forward to the school gates reopening and life returning to the classroom.

“I want to go back to school. I love my job. Some of my best friends are on the staff. I miss all that. I just want the reopening to go as safely as possible,” she says.

Emer Neville from Clonmel. She is due to enter sixth year and complete the Leaving Cert next summer. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell

The Leaving Cert student

Emer Neville from Clonmel in Co Tipperary saw the stress and turmoil which Leaving Cert students went through earlier this year.

Having missed a large chunk of schooling during fifth year, she is worried that sixth years are facing into a year of anxiety and uncertainty. “I’m quite nervous about it – especially being a Leaving Cert student. I feel we’ve been pushed under the rug a bit and ignored,” she says.

Her biggest worry is trying to make up for lost time – and the fear of being penalised in the exams as a result. Remote learning, she says, was a real struggle.

“It was really difficult. I found it hard to sit and concentrate on the work when there was a pandemic going on in the background. It meant trying to teach yourself about subjects. Zoom was a whole new concept, but many teachers didn’t have it so there was a lot of sending us notes.”

The isolation didn’t make matters easier.

“It was strange and the social aspect of it was really hard: not getting to see your friends . . . in more recent times, we meet up, but there are friends and classmates that I’ve lost contact with.”

That said, she’s eager to get back to school and catch up with her class.

School life will be very different. All students at the school have been issued with two face masks. The schools will be festooned with warning signs and hand sanitisers. She’ll be assigned to a base class, to limit mixing with other students.

“I’m really excited to get back and see friends. It’s hard to see how the one- or two-metre rule will work in classrooms in practice. There is that danger that you pick up the virus.

“The worry is that you would pass it onto a vulnerable family member. Some of my friends with at-risk family members feel petrified about that and feel they’d never forgive themselves.”

She would like to see special measures being taken this year to recognise the unique position that this year’s Leaving Cert students are in,

“I just hope we don’t face the same uncertainty and that they have a plan. I think they should either cut the curriculum in half or go down the route of predicted grading. We just want to avoid the stress that last year’s sixth years faced.”

Róisín Kelly with her son, Arlo Sweeney (5) at their home in Dublin. Photograph: Damien Eagers
Róisín Kelly with her son, Arlo Sweeney (5) at their home in Dublin. Photograph: Damien Eagers

The child with special needs

Five-year-old Arlo Sweeney lives just around the corner from the large primary school which his older brother attends.

He should be due to start his first day of school in a few days, but there is no place for him.

The 700-pupil school says it cannot accommodate him, while he has been refused places in many other schools across the south Dublin area.

That is because Arlo has been diagnosed with autism and schools say they do not have the expertise to meet his needs.

If you have a child with additional needs, you are made to fight for everything

“You can hear the children in the playground from our house, that’s how close the school is,” says his mother Róisín Kelly.

“But there is no special class in the school and there is nothing in the south Dublin area. The system is so discriminatory. If you have a child with additional needs, you are made to fight for everything.”

Arlo is one of dozens of children with special or additional needs in south Dublin who do not have a school place for the coming school year.

And for those with special needs who are lucky enough to have school places, school closures have hit them hardest of all.

Deprived of routine and support, many parents report that their children have regressed and lost out on key skills which have taken them years to acquire,

In Arlo’s case, he has been assessed as requiring a special class, attached to a mainstream school, which typically has six students to one teacher and two special needs assistants.

While it is one of the most affluent areas of the State, campaigners say there is a “black hole” in the provision of special classes.

“The only explanation I can see is league tables. Or else there is an assumption that people in more affluent areas can privately educate their children. But that’s not an option – there are no special classes in private primary schools,” says Kelly.

For now, she says Arlo will have to avail of home tuition. Luckily, she says, parents have banded together to provide this with other children in a preschool setting. It means that Arlo will likely be almost seven years or age when he finally starts primary.

“It’s not necessarily such as bad thing. Even if a place was found at the last minute for him, I’d worry that the class might not have a qualified teacher and wouldn’t function for the first six months with all the Covid-19 disruption,” she says.

“Our only wish now is that he’s gets to be educated in his local community, like his older brother. That remains our wish for him during his time in education. I want him to reach his potential, whatever that is. He just needs access to his basic human right.”

Lorraine and Carl Dempsey with their daughters, Freya, Hannah, Sadhbh and Rianna. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
Lorraine and Carl Dempsey with their daughters, Freya, Hannah, Sadhbh and Rianna. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

The family

After six long months, the Dempsey family is getting uniforms pressed and school bags prepped for what feels like a momentous occasion.

Even in normal times, the new school year would be a big deal, says Lorraine Dempsey.

It’s been such a long break so there will be a lot of settling back in to do. There’s anxiety of different kinds

Of her four daughters, Hannah (5) is starting junior infants; Freya (13) is starting secondary school; Sadhbh (16) is in senior cycle; and her twin Rianna, who has cerebral palsy and an intellectual disability, returns to her special school.

But the fact that they have spent so long out of the classroom and are facing into very changed school settings makes this year’s return to school uncertain, anxious – and exciting.

“It’s been such a long break so there will be a lot of settling back in to do. There’s anxiety of different kinds,” she says.

“For my youngest, it’s adjusting to primary school. My 13-year-old wonders if she’ll be able to make friends and is anxious in an excited kind of way, For Sadhbh, it’s more on the academic side of things and missing out on the curriculum. And with Rianna, it’s about keeping her safe and taking precautions to make sure Covid doesn’t make its way into the home.”

She worries that the level of disruption to school will be huge.

Even before Covid-19, it felt like there was always a family member with a cold or sniffle. With public health guidelines advising against going to school with any potential coronavirus symptoms, she expects it will be a stop-start kind of year.

“We’re all so interdependent, so that will be very strange. No one knows exactly how it will pan out, so it’s hard to plan or offer reassurances that everything will be okay.”

While her daughters might normally get the bus, she’s not sure how this work out or what health precautions are in place – so she’ll drive some of them to school in the first few weeks.

Dempsey says she hopes schools will put a big emphasis on fun activities and wellbeing to help settle students back into education.

“There is a great level of excitement about seeing friends and meeting up with classmates . . . I just hope they get a chance to enjoy that, given everything they’ve been through.”