Covid-19’s teaching challenges: seven key ways the classroom has changed

From teaching with face masks to satellite learning, schools are adapting in the face of public health restrictions

Teachers learn early on in their career that plans, even the best laid ones, are at the mercy of the children they teach.

The success of a lesson ultimately lies in a teacher’s ability to adapt and change direction at the drop of a pencil.

The return to school has sent principals, teachers and SNAs in new directions. Teaching in rooms not traditionally used as classrooms, incorporating cleaning procedures into their lessons and using paraphernalia that is more at home in a hospital than a classroom. Here’s what they have learned so far from their experience of coronavirus-era teaching practice.

Teaching with masks

While many of us have become accustomed to wearing masks, teaching and learning in them present a new set of challenges.

"It is incredibly annoying," says Conor Murphy, English teacher at Skibbereen Community School in Cork. "In terms of the physicality of it all, you are straining your voice all the time."

Students in post-primary schools are also wearing face coverings and this can impact upon a teacher’s ability to pace their lesson.

“When you are trying to explain something that has a touch of ambiguity about it, you can usually tell from their expression whether they are getting it or not,” explains Murphy. “There are a lot of subtle cues that you are missing and I can’t tell if they are enjoying the class now because their faces are masked.”

Any concerns that younger students at primary might feel intimidated by mask-wearing teachers appear to be unfounded.

"To be honest I think they are so used to seeing them in shops and out and about, they don't even pass comment on it," says Ruth McEvoy, junior infant teacher at Citywest Educate Together National School, Dublin.

Kathy O’Driscoll, a special needs assistant at St Anthony’s Boy’s National School in Cork, found a creative solution to the wearing a mask when one of the students raised a concern. “I have one boy who would rather I wear a visor because he wants to see my smile,” says O’Driscoll. “So, I drew a smile on the mask, and he liked that then.”

Room for improvement

Large class sizes have resulted in many schools having to relocate classes to halls or libraries – but high ceilings, wooden floors and multiple classes can all add to increased noise levels. Research shows that poor acoustics in a classroom can have a negative impact on teaching and learning.

McEvoy is teaching from the school library this year. “The room is fabulous in some ways because I have loads of windows so it is very well ventilated,” says McEvoy.

When it comes to teaching infants from the library, however, there are more challenging things than the view. “There are no toilets in a library and with junior infants it can be quite difficult,” says McEvoy. “The children have to exit through an external door onto the yard and enter another door to use the toilet.”

Special education

Séamus O’Connor, principal at Scoil Bhríde Girls’ National School, Crosshaven, Co Cork, found the guidance on special education difficult to navigate. “There was no guidance on how we were to put special education into practice under the new normal,” says O’Connor.

The school has decided to follow the extraction model for special education. “It is contrary to what we would have done,” says O’Connor, “team teaching and shared learning support within the classroom is really the ideal way to do it but that is just not possible for us right now”.

The special education teachers (SET) are now also operating out of the school PE hall. “It is okay at the minute because the weather is okay,” says O’Connor, “but that is our PE hall gone”.

Bursting bubbles

Schools have been instructed to seat children in socially distanced pods within their class, now known as their “bubble”. Social distancing guidelines mean that children should only interact with students within their own class.

While schools may be able to keep “bubbles” apart during teaching time, for many, the request to seat children in pods, 1m or 2m apart “where possible”, is not actually possible.

“My school has 229 children, eight rooms and no opportunity to socially distance them all correctly,” says O’Connor. “I have said this to the parents, but nobody has complained about it.”

Murphy says that while he can follow social distancing guidelines in the classroom, it is proving difficult to enforce during break times. He says students will make an effort to socially distance but “subconsciously they slowly edge back towards each other”.

Satellite rooms

During lockdown many teachers and students had to get to grips with learning online and, now that they are back in the building, the teachers at St Mary's College, Naas, Co Kildare, are using their digital experience to solve the physical problems on site.

A week before the school reopened, some of the fifth-year students made a video of the school’s coronavirus plan.

The virtual walk-through of the school helped visually explain the terminology and procedures the students would encounter.

The school also introduced satellite rooms as an answer to social distancing difficulties in the junior cycle classrooms. This means that one pod of six students will access lessons streamed from the base classroom in separate room.

"It rotates so one day in every six they are in the satellite room, they are not in the room for the whole day in any day of the week," says principal Mark Dowling. "It is just for their core subjects." Students can ask the teacher questions during the lesson using Microsoft Teams. Dowling says it has run relatively smoothly.

“Students are engaged and don’t feel that they are left out and there is a teacher supervising at all times if they need assistance.”

Cleaning-up time

Many teachers report that the additional cleaning and health and safety recommendations are impacting on teaching time at both primary and second level.

“Cleaning takes up a good bit of time. Getting to class takes longer. Teaching in the moment behind a mask and to masks takes longer,” says Murphy. “This time lost needs to be addressed by the Department of Education.”

“I can see that we are even having to step it back further because now you have to make sure all the kids get time to wash their hands before they eat and when they come back in,” adds O’Connor. “The actual curricular impact is going to be hard to judge until later in the year.”

The need to for increased vigilance is also taking its toll on teacher wellbeing. “You are repressing your natural instinct all the time, you’re consciously telling yourself you can’t do this or that or to take a step back,” says Murphy. “One thing tumbles into the other and that is the overwhelming part.”

Homework pass

The logistical constraints of leaving books in school have resulted in many primary schools giving homework the pass for September.

The homework pause can also give schools an opportunity to assess their homework policies.

“They are able to stop and have a look at what it is they really want to get from homework,” says O’Connor.

The school yard is another area where many schools have noted a positive change. Staggered yard times and the need to keep “bubbles” apart at yard time have resulted in children having more space to play in many cases and teachers are reporting fewer lunchtime tumbles.

The separation is having an impact on staff morale. “It is something we are going to see erode as we get to Christmas time because staff are not meeting with each other as they would traditionally have,” says O’Connor.

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