Preparing for the return to school: focus will be on doing the basics

‘There isn’t a principal or a teacher who wouldn’t love to go back to the way it was’

Mary Kennelly, the  principal of  Presentation Secondary School in  Tralee, Co Kerry. ‘I imagine the focus will be how can we do the basics.’ Photograph: Domnick Walsh/Eye Focus

Mary Kennelly, the principal of Presentation Secondary School in Tralee, Co Kerry. ‘I imagine the focus will be how can we do the basics.’ Photograph: Domnick Walsh/Eye Focus

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On the website of Presentation Tralee, principal Mary Kennelly has pinned a note for this year’s Leaving Cert students.

“Try not to get distracted or stressed by the delay in the results,” says the message, which is signed Mrs K. “Remember it will be at the same time for every student in the country and so you can be at no disadvantage at all.”

This stoicism is central to Kennelly’s philosophy. She believes the pandemic is a “rolling ball” situation, nobody is to blame, and for every school there will be different and individual challenges – from physical measures to halt the spread of the coronavirus, to the diverse needs of pupils as well as staff.

Presentation Tralee, an all-girls school founded in 1809, operates in an old building alongside the high 19th-century Gothic St John’s Parish Church.

The newly installed Minister for Education, Norma Foley, taught at the school until February, when she was elected to the Dáil as a Fianna Fáil TD for Kerry.

There is a proud message of congratulations on the school websiteto their “diligent and dedicated” colleague as she takes on her daunting task in Government.

It is accompanied by a picture of Micheál Martin with Foley, her principal and some of the school’s 570 students during a campaign trail visit by the Fianna Fáil leader in January.

Dedication

Kennelly, a niece of poet Brendan Kennelly and a published poet herself, is not lost for words when it comes to her school’s 48 teachers and the dedication they have shown since March.

“I couldn’t talk without acknowledging the generosity of teachers,” she said

Just what the future of the school will be is not clear, but what is clear is that the school will never be the same again.

“Our business is going to have to be done in a different way. There isn’t a principal or a teacher who wouldn’t love to go back to the way it was on March 11th. But that is never going to happen.

Am I worried there will have to be more staff? Absolutely. Am I worried we won’t get resources? Absolutely

“This is a rolling ball,” she says of the way schools will have to cope with an ever-changing situation.

She wrote to parents in mid-June saying she will be in touch again in August when they have a clearer idea of exactly how the school will run. School trips and visiting speakers will be out, Kennelly thinks.

“I imagine the focus will be how can we do the basics . We may not be able to offer a lot of the value-added thing,” she says.“You must understand that we have children out for six months. And it’s not so much re-establishing old routines, but putting in place brand new ones.”

Local lockdowns

Schools will have to plan for a year in which they may have to cope with local lockdowns, for children who can’t come back, for teachers with health and childcare issues.

“Am I worried there will have to be more staff? Absolutely. Am I worried we won’t get resources? Absolutely,” she says.

On staffing, she hopes newly qualified teachers who have travelled abroad will return; that perhaps something will be done about the two-year Masters in education so that the 33 weeks’ teaching practice might be condensed.

However, all students will not be able to return, and there will have to be accommodation for teaching those children. Before schools shut, parents were taking vulnerable children out. And it will be the same on return.

“I envisage being back in the building, but in what shape, I do not know yet,” she says. “No individual school will be able to get it perfect.”

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