Boarding schools highlight social-distancing challenges for Leaving Cert

Overseas students fear they will not be able to return to Ireland to sit exams in August

Boarding schools such as Glenstal Abbey are looking at what safety measures may be required if boarders return in July for exams.  Photograph: Arthur Ellis/Press22

Boarding schools such as Glenstal Abbey are looking at what safety measures may be required if boarders return in July for exams. Photograph: Arthur Ellis/Press22

Your Web Browser may be out of date. If you are using Internet Explorer 9, 10 or 11 our Audio player will not work properly.
For a better experience use Google Chrome, Firefox or Microsoft Edge.

 

Boarding schools have voiced concern over whether they can implement social distancing measures if they reopen for the Leaving Cert exams later this summer.

Many say they face steep challenges in ensuring students are safe during the two-week period they are due to reopen in July, as well as during the exams themselves.

In addition, some schools have overseas students who are worried they may not be able to return in time to sit the exam due to travel restrictions or quarantine rules.

Fr Martin Browne, headmaster of Glenstal Abbey School, Co Limerick, said the school was examining what type of safety measures may be required if the school’s 41 boarders returned in July.

Of these, five are based overseas in Germany, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland and the US.

He said there were many unanswered questions surrounding how the school would manage.

“Will we need to bring the overseas students back ahead of the Irish students, and isolate them around the building?” said Fr Browne.

Student isolation

“We could do that easily enough with five students. But then there are similar questions when it comes to the Irish cohort of students arriving. Are they expected to isolate when they come here? Do they have to come two weeks before the exams?

“That could be a bit crazy: to have 40 students come back here only to be told, basically, to hide in their rooms and not interact with one another.”

While boarding students account for a small proportion of the 50,000 or so students due to sit the exams, Fr Browne said it was important that their needs were also considered in any decision-making.

For example, he said rumours that exams could be spread out over a longer period so students did not share an exam hall for longer than necessary were a “nonsense” for boarding schools.

While it was one thing having “military-precision social distancing for the two or three hours of the exam paper”, there also needed to be a recognition that boarding students would end up in the school for the remaining 21 hours of the day.

‘Reasonable and possible’

Fr Browne said he was not calling for the cancellation of the Leaving Cert, but wanted to ensure that any decisions by policymakers took into account what was “reasonable and possible” in schools.

The Joint Managerial Body, which represents voluntary secondary schools and most boarding schools, says it has been raising these concerns with the Department of Education.

Fr Martin Browne, OSB, headmaster of Glenstal Abbey School: While it was one thing having “military-precision social distancing for the two or three hours of the exam paper”, boarding students would end up in the school for the remaining 21 hours of the day. Photograph: Liam Burke/Press 22
Fr Martin Browne, OSB, headmaster of Glenstal Abbey School: While it was one thing having “military-precision social distancing for the two or three hours of the exam paper”, boarding students would end up in the school for the remaining 21 hours of the day. Photograph: Liam Burke/Press 22

The department, meanwhile, says it is meeting twice weekly with education partners to take on board issues relating to all the exams across all schools.

St Columba’s College, a boarding school in south Dublin, also said it was important that the needs of boarding students were kept to the fore.

Mark Boobeyer, warden of St Columba’s, said up to half of the 60-70 students due to sit the Leaving Cert were based abroad.

He said the school was examining contingency plans such as requiring international students to self-isolate for two weeks or for boarders to stay with local families during the exam period.

“It’s problematic and I hope their needs will be taken into consideration. It’s only right that overseas students – a proportion of which are Irish – should be treated equally. Would I like the Leaving Cert go ahead? On balance, I would say no.”

Leaving Cert insecurity: Overseas students express concerns

Many Irish boarding school have students based abroad who are worried they will not be able to return for the Leaving Cert exams.

Uncertainty over travel restrictions and whether boarding schools will be able open safely are just some of their concerns.

Many left boarding schools shortly after they were shut down in mid-March, but are keeping up with their studies online.

Henri Cramer, a student in Glenstal Abbey whose family home is in Berlin, said it is disconcerting studying for exams so far from Ireland and misses contact with his schoolfriends.

“I miss seeing everyone on a daily basis and being able to consult subject teachers and career guidance teachers regarding any queries or questions as I normally would. We can consult them of course on Zoom which is the next best thing,” he says.

James Fitzgerald, another Glenstal student, is based in the US. He is also unsure what awaits in the summer.

“Being faced with a bad situation, the teachers and staff have been incredibly supportive, no matter where we might be in the world and have adapted and helped us to adapt to online learning,” he said.

Younes Lefgoum, based in Algeria, is also trying to look on the bright side and say he feels connected to students and teachers.

“We have regular Zoom classes and chats and there seems to be the same good environment between students and teachers/tutors as we would normally have at school,” he says. “Having our regular morning assemblies via zoom and YouTube also help us all to feel connected.”

Some of the overseas Leaving Cert students at Glenstal Abbey (clockwise from top left): Georg Von Strantz (Switzerland); Younes Lefgoum (Algeria); Henri Cramer (Germany), Ignacio Baena (Spain) and James Fitzgerald (USA).
Some of the overseas Leaving Cert students at Glenstal Abbey (clockwise from top left): Georg Von Strantz (Switzerland); Younes Lefgoum (Algeria); Henri Cramer (Germany), Ignacio Baena (Spain) and James Fitzgerald (USA).

News Digests

Stay on top of the latest newsSIGN UP HERE