School's out. Two words that would ordinarily spark joy in the hearts of primary school children. But these are not ordinary times and, for 12-year-old Olivia Lyons, these words don't' spark joy. They spark disappointment.
Like nearly 70,000 other sixth class primary school students, Olivia was looking forward to the day that would mark her graduation from primary school and signal her transition to secondary.
“I feel quite sad,” she says. “It’s hard when you have been with the school for all these years and now, you’re not going to get a nice finish with them, to share all the memories that we have had.”
Olivia looked on over the years as other sixth classes graduated and was looking forward to following in their footsteps.
“They get cloaks and hats and a have barbeque, everyone in the school lines up outside their classroom and as sixth class walk through the school everyone claps for them,” says Olivia. “They won’t be lining up for us now.”
Primary schools around the country are now scrambling to adapt their plans for graduation to fit the current restrictions. For some that means postponing and for others it means going virtual or even hybrid.
The announcement that schools will remain closed until September confirmed that sixth class graduations would not being going ahead – in the traditional sense at least.
Principal Caitríona Hand and staff at Citywest Educate Together National School are putting the finishing touches to a very alternative graduation day.
It has both an on-site and virtual aspect, working within official public health and safety guidelines.
Students will be designated a time and invited to the school individually at five-minute intervals on the afternoon of graduation day.
“When they get to the school there will be a table outside and on that will be their graduation pack, which is a portfolio of their work from the eight years that they spent in school, their certificate and a memento,” says Hand.
A staff member will then take the students’ graduation photo in front of the school crest and a virtual ceremony will be held that evening.
“We will have a Zoom call and all the students can come on,” says Hand. “ Staff members will be in different rooms in the school so that the children can say goodbye to the PE hall, their classroom and other places like that.”
Student voice is really important in our school and we really want them to be part of designing it
There will be speeches, recorded messages from staff members and a montage of photos from over their eight years. They also hope students will do a performance piece of some kind.
“Obviously we know it will be different, it might be a TikTok but we are hoping they will come up with that,” she says.
Hand is hoping to replicate the guard of honour virtually by recording them clapping and waving, and editing it together.
Even the tradition of everyone signing each other’s shirts will get the online treatment.
"They can each go into a document on Google Classrooms and sign their name and the staff can do the same and we can get that document printed onto T-shirts," says Hand.
The fact that parents in the school gave them the space and time to plan the graduation has been a big plus; the school has also involved the sixth class students themselves in the planning.
“Student voice is really important in our school and we really want them to be part of designing it,” says Hand.
Billy Lynch, principal of Scoil Cholmcille on Blarney Street in Cork, was also reluctant to defer the graduation ceremony until next year.
“You can’t promise you’re going to be able to do that,” says Walsh. “And in September the moment has passed, they are in a different school, they are in secondary.”
Rite of passage
Lynch says the graduation is a rite of passage for the students and is an important milestone in their school life.
“You have to give them that sense of closure. I know that is a term that is bandied about but, in these circumstances, it is needed,” says Lynch. “You can’t just leave them walk out and have it that their last day was the 12th March. Small little things have become more important and this is a big deal that has become all the more important now.”
The school had already chosen June 24th as their date and have decided to run with that, albeit in an altered format.
It will be streamed live online with an MC who, he says, will bring some fun to the occasion.
It has to be every child, you can't leave anyone out. It will only be as good as it can be if everybody is there
The school’s graduations traditionally have a culinary aspect which they hope to retain this year.
“We are thinking of getting a delivery of food to the houses,” says Lynch, “So the chip shop would deliver the food and the pizzas, and they will have that celebration.”
The school has been streaming its assembly since it closed and staff are using what they have learned from this to ensure maximum participation in the graduation.
They have contacted families individually so they could address any device or access issues ahead of the planned ceremony.
“It has to be every child, you can’t leave anyone out,” says Lynch. “It will only be as good as it can be if everybody is there.”
Lynch says inclusion underpins the ethos of their school and is determined to uphold this during the closures.
“It would destroy us, if someone was left out. Even if we had to stick a phone in a letterbox or something, we will get there,” he says.
For other schools trying to plan their graduation ceremonies, Hand advises them to approach it like they would any other year.
“The most important thing is to communicate and trust. You have been a team for eight years so finish as a strong team.”
A celebrity send-off for the class of 2020
Sports days, confirmations, school tours and graduations: this year’s sixth class pupils are missing out on key milestones in their young lives.
It prompted Sarah Webb, an award-winning children's writer, to set up a movement on Twitter – #Messagesfor6th – with the aim of collecting inspirational messages and sending them to students who are missing out on their final months in primary school.
The idea has picked up momentum, with many writers, sports stars and celebrities eager to show their support.
“A lot of the people involved are ex-primary school teachers, so they get it, they 100 per cent get it,” says Webb.
The videos will go live on Saturday May 23rd and some of the names confirmed include:
Amy Huberman, Paul Howard, Sinead Burke (an ex-primary teacher herself), Eoin Colfer (another ex-primary teacher), Robin Stevens, Dave Rudden, Marita Conlon-McKenna (the grandmother of a sixth class child), John Boyne, Onjali Q Raúf, Gordon D'Arcy, Dr Sindy Joyce, Sinead Moriarty, Deirdre Sullivan (currently a primary school teacher), Derek Landy and the new Laureate na nÓg (children's laureate) Áine Ní Ghlinn.