Coronavirus: Schools prepare to move classes online

Disruption due to mass school closures set to be unmatched by any weather event in living memory

Teachers Ciara Weir (left), computer teacher, and Cathy Kehoe, English and ICT, prepare for online classes  at Mount Carmel Secondary School, King’s Inns Street, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Teachers Ciara Weir (left), computer teacher, and Cathy Kehoe, English and ICT, prepare for online classes at Mount Carmel Secondary School, King’s Inns Street, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

School principal Gerry Cullen was sitting at his desk on Thursday morning when teachers began to gather around with mobile phones in hand.

The breaking news that all schools, pre-schools and third-level institutions were to close for at least two weeks was not unexpected, but jolting nonetheless.

“We’ve been preparing for it, but it was still a shock,” says Cullen, principal of Mount Carmel Secondary School, an all-girls school on Dublin’s King’s Inns Street.

Hundreds of schools like Mount Carmel have in recent days been getting assignments ready, road-testing online learning platforms, and advising students to start bringing home schoolbooks.

The disruption caused by mass school closures for at least two weeks is set to be unmatched by any freak weather event in living memory.

It will plunge working parents into chaos and expose how fragile childcare arrangements are that allow mothers and fathers to work.

For students, especially those facing into State exams, it plunges a carefully timetabled and choreographed process into uncertainty.

However, school principals say a combination of advance planning and access to online platforms means they are at least prepared to minimise the impact on teaching and learning.

“Teachers have been preparing work and assignments for the pupils and will upload it online. All the students nowadays have access to computers or smartphones at home so they can access Office 365 and Microsoft Teams, so accessing the internet isn’t a problem,” says Cullen.

Anxiety

Most school principals say their main job, in addition to contingency planning, has been urging students and parents to keep calm.

At Gonzaga College, an all-boys secondary school in Ranelagh, headmaster Damon McCaul says anxiety among boys isn’t normally a problem. However, the looming State exams means many are worried.

“The key is not allowing panic to build. For students facing into State exams, much of the work is done, very little new material is being taught and it’s about exam technique. With our Junior Certs, we’re in the middle of classroom-based assessments. Then there are oral and practical exams around the corner,” he says.

The school instructed students to take home all books and learning material earlier this week and teachers have been uploading content to virtual learning platforms in preparation for potential closures.

If schools are looking to get a taste of how to teach online, a Co Clare secondary school – which has been closed since March 4th on foot of the coronavirus outbreak – has been doing so since last week.

It is hosting eight subjects remotely for its Leaving Certificate students, an initiative spearheaded by the school’s math and physics teacher. He believes the practice could easily be rolled out to most schools across the country.

The classes are hosted using the Microsoft Team online platform and incorporate video conferencing, text and real-time access to the school’s whiteboard.

Classes have also been taking place at their usual scheduled times to provide as much routine and normality for the students as possible.

“I want the kids to stay in a routine and not to be thinking about the coronavirus. Normal life has to go on. We all have to keep going and to do everything that we can to keep the show on the road,” he says.

“The kids sign in online, they see me on camera, they can hear me and have access to my whiteboard, so it’s a very close replica of a real physical classroom.

“They all have mics on their computers or phones so they can ask questions. All their names are listed on the side of the screen and when someone speaks, their name is highlighted, so I know who is speaking.”

YouTube

At the Dublin Academy, a grind school, teachers have been practising videoing their classes and are planning to put them on YouTube where they can be accessed free by the school’s students and any other students.

Principal Michael Ruaidhrí Deasy says teachers will come to work as normal during the closures and post the classes online.

“We’ve one full-time videographer on site and are hiring more. Our classes are very interactive and more like workshops, so we’re trying to re-create this online,” he says.

James McCrory, acting secondary principal at an international school in the northeast of China, has more experience of extended school closures than most.

The Changhun American International School has been closed since late January, he says, and learning has continued online. His advice to parents is to find a suitable place for your child to work from home.

“Also, start collecting a range of basic materials for children at home from drawing paper, coloured paper, pens. If you have a local library, check out some books while you still can. Children will need a wide range of activities to keep them engaged productively in the coming week.”