For Conor O’Reilly, principal of Scoil Áine Naofa in Lucan, Dublin, the full reopening of primary schools today [Monday] cannot come quickly enough.
“Schools are the best places to work but when they’re empty, they’re miserable,” says O’Reilly, who has been working out of a building with no pupils since January.
“Empty classrooms, empty seats. It’s not right. My overriding emotion when we reopen will be relief.”
Almost 300,000 pupils across the country are due to return to school this Monday morning as primary schools fully reopen and fifth-year students return to secondary school.
At Scoil Áine Naofa – a senior primary which caters for 3rd to 6th classes – it will the first time the doors have been open since they closed for Christmas.
While reopening schools has been an achievement, keeping them open will be the real challenge for school leaders.
Public health data since junior classes and sixth years returned a fortnight ago have been encouraging. In the first week there were no outbreaks recorded, and low positivity rates in mass testing following positive cases. In the second week there were at least six outbreaks; official figures on positivity rates are due shortly.
“I think we’ll be a bit apprehensive with everything that’s going on,” says O’Reilly. “We’ve been revisiting our Covid plans, re-familiarising ourselves with everything and trying to address the concerns of staff and parents.”
There has, however, been controversy across the wider education system over some frontline education staff working with vulnerable children being prioritised over others for vaccination.
Staff employed by Tusla such as education and welfare officers and staff in school projects have been vaccinated in many cases. Yet homeschool community liaison officers – who visit the homes of vulnerable families – have not, and there is no clarity when they will be vaccinated.
Tusla declined to comment on why this was the case, but correspondence seen by The Irish Times shows it reached agreement with the HSE to vaccinate its own staff as a priority; homeschool liaison officers are employed by school boards .
Teachers and special needs assistants, meanwhile, have been told they will be among the first third of the population to be vaccinated but there is still no date on when this will commence.
Back at Scoil Áine Naofa, reopening has come just in time. While remote learning has been a success it’s been harder to keep these levels of interest in recent weeks, says O’Reilly.
“In the last three or four weeks there has been a bit of a drop-off in enthusiasm. They’ve been getting a bit fed up with it,” he says.
“But overall remote learning has been much better than last year. We were better prepared as a school, teachers were more confident, children were more confident. We’d sent the books home before Christmas, so we were prepared for the worst.”
A big challenge will be catch-up supports for children with additional needs.
“They were left behind by the system. We did everything we could, but it is difficult to cater to their needs remotely. Parents were tearing their hair out.”
The Government says it is drawing up plans for a “summer school” programme aimed at children with additional needs and at-risk children attending disadvantaged schools.
As for now teachers’ priority will be getting students back into a routine and focusing on wellbeing.
“We won’t be giving out homework; it will be about settling back into school and addressing any concerns that students have. We tried to do that during the closures but Zoom isn’t a substitute for the real classroom.”