Rural schools that struggled to stay open now have social distancing advantage

Small schools once threatened with closure now in pole position for reopening amid Covid-19

School Principle Naos Connaughton pictured outside the two-teacher Lecarrow Community School in Co Roscommon. Photograph: Brian Farrell

School Principle Naos Connaughton pictured outside the two-teacher Lecarrow Community School in Co Roscommon. Photograph: Brian Farrell

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School principal Tara McGovern says finding safe spaces won’t be an issue for her pupils, with just 13 children enrolled for September so far - six in the junior room and seven spread out over third, fourth, fifth and sixth class.

Rural communities which have had to fight to keep schools open because of depopulation, are finding themselves at an advantage as social distancing concerns loom in advance of pupils returning to the classroom.

Tara McGovern is principal of the two-room Curravagh primary school in Glangevlin, Co Cavan where in 2018 they launched a successful online Stand with Glan appeal, in a bid to attract families to the parish.

“Ironically, the low numbers which threatened our school with closure can now be viewed in a positive light as we prepare for reopening, following the Covid-19 closures” said the principal.

But if she wants to keep her second teacher next year, McGovern must find one more pupil before September 30th, so she’s hoping the safety appeal of the school will woo more families .

Step into nature

Meanwhile the number of pupils at one Co Roscommon primary school is set to more than double – but its principal also has no worries about social distancing .

Appointed last year as principal of Lecarrow community national school, Naos Connaughton (29), a member of the Roscommon senior hurling team , will welcome 17 pupils into the two teacher school.

It’s a dramatic increase from the cohort of eight pupils who were enrolled just a year ago.

“Every school in the country will face challenges but we are very very lucky because we have a beautiful campus here,” said the Lecarrow native, himself a past pupil of what was formerly St John’s national school.

Recently divested of its Catholic patronage and now under the auspices of the Galway and Roscommon Educational and Training Board (GRETB), the school has a covered play area outside, as well as a football pitch and jungle gym.

Children attending Curravagh NS which is in the foothills of the Cuilcagh mountains, are also likely to have a lot more space than their city counterparts.

“We are lucky. The school was built in 1933, there are big rooms with lovely high ceilings and we have great gardens with trees and raised beds, and four separate play areas. It’s a step into nature,” said Tara McGovern.

'The rooms are about 20 meters square. We have double desks so can have one child in each desk'

There are no junior infants enrolled for September yet although there is one possibility. But speculation that there could be ongoing Covid-19 spikes, causing disruption to the school year, is apparently making some parents anxious about whether it’s the right time for “big school”.

“It is understandable. There a lot of uncertainty about the year ahead ,” said the principal who has had a new sink and hand sanitising stations installed over the summer.

Jenny Grothe who moved her family from Berlin to west Cavan when she heard about the Stand with Glan campaign says she feels that her children will be much safer there during the global pandemic.

“My children went to a big international school in Berlin with maybe 500 pupils so I was delighted to have them here” said Grothe who is living a few kilometres from the Cuilcagh mountain geopark.

Her children Lennon (13) and Cailin (8) speak English as their first language and adapted very quickly to the rural school. “Because of the numbers they are probably used to social distancing - I don’t think they will notice much difference,” said the mother of three who had her “lockdown baby” Lily on April 29th at Sligo University Hospital. “I had her to save the school,” she joked.

Cathal Hickey also moved to Glangevlin in 2018 , having lived in China for five years before re-locating to Westmeath and from there to Cavan.

After hearing about the school’s campaign “we decided we would come and have a look and we fell in love with the place, especially the school”.

The musician said the numbers at the school are so low “it’s almost like getting a private education. You could not pay for it”.

He says social distancing will be as easy for his children Peadar and Sinead at school as it is when they are at home. “Our nearest neighbour is over a kilometre away. Around here the neighbours are there when your need them.”

Tina Doyle’s two school going children Eoghan (8) and Ferdiad (6) (O’Reilly) make up one third of the total in the junior room at Curravagh school.

“I feel this is the only really viable option at the moment. They are already in a bubble,” said the native of Glangelvin who moved back home from Dublin 8 with her family, around the time her eldest son was due to start school.

“So he has two in his class instead of maybe 32,” she explained. “We were in the inner city and people are joking saying we must have known in advance what was going to happen”.

Doyle, a secondary school teacher herself says that in a way the community in Glangelvin is very lucky to be in their own bubble because of the remote rural location. “I feel the boys will be really safe. They were already social distanced in a way because of the numbers so there won’t be any big transition for them and they wont feel their environment is restricted the way children in other schools might”.

She also attended Curravagh primary school at a time when they were not always struggling to have the numbers to hold onto a teacher. “When I was in that room there were about 26 of us. Now there are six including my sons. I’d love to see just a few more kids there of course.”

Pulling together

Parents are hopeful because of a recent “population explosion” that the school will survive, with about nine children under the age of five in the locality. “There were twins born last week so that’s a big increase” joked Doyle who if she had stayed in Dublin would be working in a school with 1200 secondary students.

Naos Connaughton will have eight pupils in one classroom and nine in the other.

“We are right beside farmland so we have cows and sheep coming up to the fence,” said the principal who is a great believer in bringing children outdoors and often leads walks to the nearby harbour at Lough Ree, or the local Rindoon medieval settlement.

Even indoors social distancing rules won’t be a huge change for his pupils.

“The rooms are about 20 meters square. We have double desks so can have one child in each desk,” he pointed out.

Having risen to the challenge of online lessons, including online Ukulele classes, the school principal reckons pupils as well as teachers and parents will be glad to revert to face to face classes.

“I think everyone will pull together. We have to keep things as normal as possible especially for those starting in junior infants.

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