‘I’m very, very excited’: Lockdown students return after months of online classes

Schools reopen fully to one million students and staff for first time since Christmas

Erika Gallagher (17), a student at Newpark Comprehensive School in Dublin: ‘I think we’ll all have a newfound appreciation of being back at school.’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Erika Gallagher (17), a student at Newpark Comprehensive School in Dublin: ‘I think we’ll all have a newfound appreciation of being back at school.’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

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In normal times Erika Gallagher (17), would be dreading going back to school. But after months of learning remotely on her laptop, she can’t wait to be back in the classroom.

“I’m actually very, very excited about it,” says Gallagher, a student at Newpark Comprehensive in Dublin.

“When you’re out of the classroom so long, it does make you realise how much you miss it. I think we’ll all have a new-found appreciation of being there.”

On Monday, one million students and staff are due to return to their classrooms after the Easter holidays.

For hundreds of thousands of second-level students – from first to fourth year – it will be their first time back in school since before Christmas.

While online learning meant they were able to stay engaged with schoolwork, many students say they struggled to keep motivated. It’s an experience few want to repeat.

Anna Keyes (17), a TY student from Co Cork: ‘The longer it went on, the more burnt out I got.’
Anna Keyes (17), a TY student from Co Cork: ‘The longer it went on, the more burnt out I got.’

Burnt out

Anna Keyes (17), a transition-year student from Co Cork, feels that staring at a screen for months has taken its toll.

“I’m in transition year (TY) and although my teachers were really trying their best to make the most of it, it’s just not the same as having it in person. The longer it went on, the more burnt out I got,” she says.

“It’s just so difficult to stay focused... especially when you’re in TY and there’s no real motivator like an exam to keep you working.”

Chloe Anderson (17), from Thomastown, Co Kilkenny: ‘Working out of my room was really distracting, and using screens all day was very draining.’
Chloe Anderson (17), from Thomastown, Co Kilkenny: ‘Working out of my room was really distracting, and using screens all day was very draining.’

Chloe Anderson (17), from Thomastown, Co Kilkenny, agrees that online learning has been more challenging.

“Working out of my room was really distracting, and using screens all day was very draining. This was in addition to working without the social aspect of school [such as] lunches and breaks.”

Students say their schools had a variety of policies: some had “cameras-on” rules; others simply encouraged it. Most say their classes were shorter than normal, to give them a short break between classes. Most agree that even with less work, the day passed more slowly.

Kacper Bogalecki (17), from Killarney, Co Kerry: ‘There would also be an awkward moment of silence before the teacher logged on. It was strange in this way, it didn’t feel very natural.’
Kacper Bogalecki (17), from Killarney, Co Kerry: ‘There would also be an awkward moment of silence before the teacher logged on. It was strange in this way, it didn’t feel very natural.’

While the aim was for class to continue in as normal a manner as possible, Kacper Bogalecki (17), from Killarney, Co Kerry, says there was never anything normal about it.

“In my school, for the majority of our live lessons we wouldn’t turn our cameras on,” he says. “You couldn’t see anyone or interact with them like you would usually do, and there would also be an awkward moment of silence before the teacher logged on. It was strange in this way, it didn’t feel very natural.”

Silence

Gallagher agrees: the atmosphere online, she says, was strange. “Our school policy was ‘cameras on’. But no one really talks. It’s a lot harder to ask a question. You’ve to unmute yourself, and say, ‘excuse me, miss’. You don’t want to stop a class for a small question which you’d normally be able to check with your friend.”

There were upsides, though. Keyes admits to starting some early morning classes from the comfort of her bed – with the camera off – on a few occasions.

“Teachers urged us to keep our cameras on, but they couldn’t really force us to do anything when they’re not right there with us,” she says.

Thomas Eve (17), from Straffan, Co Kildare: ‘I think something that a lot of young people have learned is just how much we need other people, and to be with them in real life.’
Thomas Eve (17), from Straffan, Co Kildare: ‘I think something that a lot of young people have learned is just how much we need other people, and to be with them in real life.’

Thomas Eve (17), from Straffan, Co Kildare, says being visible on camera helped him stay focused.

“In most classes we were encouraged to have our cameras on and when we did, it made me a bit more focused and it was nice to see the rest of my classmates too.

“Most days were pretty similar, but thankfully my school ran some online after-school activities which offered us a chance to relax or get active after a morning of work.”

Toll

As for the impact of months of online learning, most agree it has – on the whole – been negative. Anderson feels it has taken a “huge toll” on her academic progress and mental health.

“I struggle with deadlines and such already, and so this has wiped my motivation and sent my own stress levels through the roof,” she says.

“Although I think it was the right call for students to not be forced into going to school with cases [of Covid-19] skyrocketing, I am now behind in my coursework and worried about my Leaving Cert next year,” she says.

While it was challenging, Keyes feels the experience will stand to her and others.

“As cheesy as it sounds, being out of school has made me appreciate it a lot more,” she says. “ I really miss seeing my friends and teachers and I don’t want to take it for granted like I did before. In a weird way it’s also made me feel more confident, because I’m away from social pressures and feeling the need to impress people.

“ These days the only person I’m accountable to is myself, which has been really freeing for me. If nothing else, I think a lot of my friends would agree that lockdown has been a good time for reflecting and learning to express ourselves.”

Thomas Eve agrees, saying that for him it has been a time to take stock and reassess what’s really important.

“I have discovered that I am a social person and I really missed those day-to-day interactions with the rest of my year group and chatting with my friends,” he says.

“I think something that a lot of young people have learned is just how much we need other people – and to be with them in real life.”

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