Weirdest term ever: How students have coped, from primary to third level

Pupils and students around Ireland, and their teachers, on learning in Covid-19’s shadow

Primary school: ‘It’s just weird’

The principal of St Audoen's National School in Dublin's south inner city, Eilish Meagher, is starting the day as she has done every morning since September, writes Jennifer O'Connell. She gulps down a quick cup of tea in the school kitchen and is outside the gates by 8.30am, standing with home school liaison officer Geoff Finan and special needs assistant Dawn Treacy.

Since schools reopened in September under the shadow of Covid-19, parents can no longer go inside the school, so “that important part of the day, where a mammy or daddy or a parent or carer meets teacher and has a big chat about their concerns – if somebody has had a bad weekend, or something has happened – is missing. School is a huge part of the community. And we would always be very reliant on that information.”

Earlier, staggered arrival times are an attempt to bridge the gap. As pupils trickle in ahead of the official 8.50am start time, Meagher admires a hair bow here and a lunch box there and has a quick catch-up with parents in between. A small boy presents her with a carefully wrapped gift – he’s been working on his confidence, and this is an idea his mother and teacher came up with.

The last few months have been 'the most difficult period of my principalship,' says Meagher

Meagher takes another parent aside for an intense discussion about a missing Elf on the Shelf, whose whereabouts have been worrying one eight-year-old pupil. A replacement has been secured, and is up in the school office.


Finan’s job relies on him getting to know the parents, so he’s here every morning too. During lockdown, his job became more about “being there for families with practical support. Or sometimes just to listen. We were able to get food parcels out to families that really needed them. We’ve a lovely community in this school – that’s one of the things that gets overlooked in Dublin 8. How strong the community is, and how much they do for each other.”

So far, so typical of any normal morning at any school drop off. But this has not been a normal term for St Audoen’s, or for any school. The last few months have been “the most difficult period of my principalship,” says Meagher, who started at this school immediately after college, and has been principal for the last 11 years.

She has seen St Audoen’s through good times and bad: back in the mid-1990s, a Department of Education report identified it as the country’s most severely disadvantaged – a word that still makes Meagher shudder.

I visited the school as a journalist in 2003, and found a school where children were flourishing – and an environment that was "warm and happy and comfortable" in the words of the then-principal, Donal Monaghan. It has come even further since then: the classrooms are bright and well-equipped, and the atmosphere between teachers and pupils is that of a really close, affectionate community. As they drop their kids off, several parents address her as "Miss Meagher. " "I used to teach them," she laughs.

Still, this term has been tough on everyone and has meant a lot of changes. School starts earlier, and each class has an allotted time to arrive. The pupils sanitise their hands on their way into every room. Once they’re safely installed in their classrooms, the stair bannister and the door handles will be disinfected by the school caretaker.

The windows in the school are open, meaning uniform restrictions have been relaxed to allow children to pile on the layers. When they go outside for their twice-daily breaks in a yard that has been divided to ensure no mixing between classroom groups, each classroom gets a once over with a fogging machine, which sanitises surfaces and reduces airborne contaminants.

Children from different classes can’t play together anymore. Birthdays are no longer celebrated with a parent dropping in with some cake, and there are no more weekly school assemblies. Parent-teacher meetings are over the phone. Courses and events for parents have moved online. “All these little things add up to make school a different place; a little bit less comfortable,” says Meagher.

She’s worried about an underlying anxiety among children generally. “Not being able to really understand or articulate or communicate that you’re afraid is really difficult.” Children have coped remarkably well, but some are struggling. “We have seen children who have new anxieties who need support, and also children who would have previously had anxiety needing a little bit of extra support. They’re worried about their grandparents, their parents, their family. They’re missing people. Life is very different.”

For teachers and school staff, “it’s almost overwhelming to think about the risk and the expectation on us. If you stop and think about it for too long, it’s a massive responsibility. But everybody is really happy to be here. Once the kids are in school, we’re all happy,” Meagher says.

There have been five cases of Covid-19 in the school population so far: they were all community transmission, and there was no further spread in school. “So that’s really given us confidence,” she adds.

The children of sixth class certainly seem happy to be back in school. St Audoen's was very hands-on during lockdown, but they all found remote learning hard. Yousef Eldib says he found it "less motivating" when he was trying to learn at home.

Sam Maguire felt "our self-esteems went down. Because none of our friends were around when we were doing the homework and all. It's pretty hard, because usually your friends would normally help you, and there was nobody around, except for your parents. Your friends help you, they make you feel great."

Yousef's twin, Yasmine Eldib, says she was "pretty sad, because I always went to my friends for advice and stuff."

What Kayden Spooner hated most about lockdown was “they were telling us we were carriers of it. And they were telling us children were not allowed out at all. Because they’d spread it to old people.”

"Adults can carry it as well," says Saoirse Deegan. "But I was very nervous. I wouldn't go to see my Da because he lives with my nanny." So she didn't see him for two months. "And that was, like, really hard on me."

Emily Evans lost two of her grandparents six weeks apart during lockdown. "There was only 25 people allowed in the crematorium. It was really upsetting. That was the worst part of lockdown. It feels better being back to a bit of normality in school. My friends are here to help me." If she was still at home alone, she thinks "I'd be crying all the time."

Everyone in the class says they spent more time online during lockdown, on apps like TikTok, Facetime, Snapchat, Discord and the video games Fortnite and Among Us. Asked how much time they spent online after their school work was done, half the class says they spent six to seven hours online. Some of the others say they spent more. The virtual world helped fill in some of what they were missing: sport, their friends and their family. But they all agree it wasn’t the same as face-to-face contact with their friends.

Overall, they approve of how the Government has handled the pandemic, though Emily Evans has her reservations. “All they can think about is parents. The only thing they’ve done for children is bring the schools back.” That will help us to socialise, she says. “But they need to think more about children. Children are the next generation.”

Even though they're all relieved to be back at school, this is not quite the sixth-class experience they were expecting. They've missed out on a few privileges. Brooke Jones is annoyed they have to share the iPads with other classes. Saoirse Deegan is sad they can't mix with children in other classes. "It's weird, because last year, we used to get to go down to junior and senior [infants] to help out, and now we're not. We used to be able to bring them into yard and all," agrees Lexi O'Dwyer.

When I had to be on my own, I kind of focused on myself. I learned how to be on my own, and that's what I'm proud of

How would they describe being in a child during the 2020 Covid pandemic? “Very hard,” says Brooke Jones.

"Weird," says Jake Cooney instantly. "It's just weird because the environment has changed a lot. You have to be careful who you make contact with."

When she's an old lady and looks back on this strange time in her life, Ciara Darcy thinks she'll tell her children and grandchildren "how we had to stay away from each other, and we had to wear a mask, and it was real different."

But she’ll also tell them, “I learned how to take care of myself.” She got a skincare routine going, and took better care of her health and wellbeing. “I used to just lay in bed, and do nothing. But when I had to be on my own, I kind of focused on myself. I learned how to be on my own, and that’s what I’m proud of.”

Secondary: ‘Keeping all the windows open, you’re freezing’

At 8.30 am, around 1,600 masked students arrive at Gorey Community School, the largest school in the country, writes Patrick Freyne. At each entrance they receive hand sanitiser from a pedal-operated dispenser overlooked by one of the school's Covid supervisors. 
"Your mask?" says Michael Morris, the special educational needs co-ordinator, to one student.

“I forgot.”

Morris gives him a mask. It’s the first time he’s needed to do this this morning and he’s been here since 7.45am. “I’ll need two or three mugs of tea to warm me up this morning,” he says with a shiver.

Gorey Community School was founded in 1993 when three local schools amalgamated. There are 1,650 students and 160 staff here.

Principal Michael Finn walks me around the corridors explaining what has changed in this, the strangest term he’s experienced in his 20 years working here. They have hired four “Covid supervisors”, and four extra cleaning staff who clean throughout the day. They have staggered the breaks and lunches and instituted a one-way system around the school. There are arrows everywhere. To fit within Covid-19 guidelines class sizes have reduced to 24.

There are none of the Christmas musicals that usually mark the end of term (last year they did Les Mis), so this week “to dispel the gloom” there’s a busking competition during the breaks and a competition in which students compete to decorate classroom doors. I see a door that looks like the Coca-Cola Christmas ad truck and doors featuring life-sized effigies of teachers.

Irish teacher Teresa Kenny’s door features her face pasted onto Mrs Claus’s body with other teachers appearing as elves. Inside the class, new-age music is playing, and the children are meditating on what they’ve achieved that week.

Mrs Kenny is the class tutor. She’s finding it hard, she says, to tell the first years apart with the masks. At her desk there’s a Perspex partition. Each time the students enter class they disinfect and spray their desks and they’re all seated separately instead of in the customary groups of four. The door and windows are open. The room is cold and the children are all wearing their coats. “I bought a special Covid coat, myself,” says Kenny.

Between classes the students are masked and distanced. There is constant cleaning. Deputy principal Stella Keogh pushes a door open with her sleeve. “My cardigans are ruined,” she says. “The kids have adjusted really well but initially it felt like the life was sucked out of the place.”

There are some positives, says Finn. He thinks the staff made huge leaps with technology. They ran classes online from March last year though there were hiccups. “When the students became more confident we discovered they were able to lock the teacher out of the class.”

During breaks, students gather to chat and shiver in the central quad which has been fitted with rain-proof marquees. Two girls are performing All I Want for Christmas is You, as part of the busking competition.

Second-year student Joe Galvin is bringing up school council business with Michael Finn in the middle of the quad. “Some people are wondering about wearing [non-uniform] coats in class because it’s colder,” he explains to me afterwards.

Joe’s friend Caragh Moore also ran for student council but didn’t get elected. “I didn’t mind if Joe won,” she says. “I just wanted to beat the GAA lads.”

There's a lot more being put on us this year ... in case there are predicted grades there's a lot more work to do

Is it a weird year for them? “I find it all strange because I’m a very talkative person and there’s less opportunity to talk. You have to keep moving and it’s hard to hear people with the masks.”

Is it a relief taking the mask off after school? “I usually walk home with my mask on.”

Are they worried about the virus? “I have a lot of elderly people in my family so I have to be careful,” says Joe. “And we have some Covid police who go around making sure we wear them.”

You mean the "Covid supervisors"? "The students call them Covid police".
Enda McDonald, one of the newly hired "Covid police", has two children in the school. "I get more hassle from them than anyone else. Ah, the kids are very good. I mean if you took a town like Abbeyfeale and stuck it into a box you'd get this school – it's nearly 2000 people – but somehow it works."

Every student I speak to is very glad to be in school but still struggles with the strangeness of it all. “You’re thinking, is this actually happening?” says transition-year student Josh O’Callaghan Doyle. “Seeing your friends in masks. Keeping all the windows open so you’re freezing.”

“There’s a lot more being put on us this year,” says Evan Flynn, who’s in Leaving Certificate year. “In case there are predicted grades there’s a lot more work to do. And we have to catch up on a lot of the stuff we missed last year.”

So how do they blow off steam? He laughs. “We don’t,” he says.

It’s strange for the staff too. Business teacher Lisa Nangle tells me how she moved from cloth masks to disposable ones so the kids could hear her better. More recently she’s been using one of the microphones the school invested in and finds it stops her straining her voice.

In the staff room, all soft furnishings and easy chairs have been removed and just a handful of teachers sit there now, metres apart at socially distanced tables. Many teachers are now opting to eat in classrooms or in their cars, and some teachers haven’t seen each other all year. “You’d miss the social aspect,” says school cleaner Bibi Lawlor.

Across the day students tell me their feelings about wearing masks. Some like the masks in winter because they help keep them warm. One girl says she likes the masks because she doesn’t have to worry about what she looks like under them. Another girl says the masks cause her skin to break out. One boy hates them because they cause his glasses to fog up.

Special needs assistant and lead worker Martina Keogh says the masks are particularly difficult for children with special needs who struggle with facial expressions or have hearing or sight impairments. Everyone nonetheless wears their masks diligently. Many say they forget that they’re wearing them.

In a woodwork class Charlie Lyons is sitting behind his Perspex screen critiquing the marquetry of a second-year student. “Masks are a real communication challenge,” he says. “Especially for an elderly guy like me. If a student at the back wants to speak up it is tough for me. This is my final year and at 64 it’s a worrying one.”

Next to the café, five transition-year students are painting a mural. It features several characters from a videogame called Among Us riding in Santa’s sleigh. It also has the words “Happy Christmas” rendered in English, Irish, Spanish, French, German, Italian, German, Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, Russian and Polish. “It represents the kids in the school so we’re being as inclusive as possible,” says Cody Copperthwaite.

Around the corner more transition-year students are working on some of the “Christmas doors.” What do they get if they win the competition? “A great sense of pride,” says Ben Harrison as he tries to hoist a sort of cardboard roof over his doorway.

“We’re going to put Mr Finn’s head on the Grinch’s body,” says Leah Cecil at the next door.

“It was Miss’s idea not ours,” says Sophie Waters.

Ben wanders up a corridor gently kicking a football with his friend Evan Harper. They miss sporting events. “I play for Wexford,” says Evan.

“You wouldn’t think it,” mutters Ben.

Before the midterm break Covid-19 cases in Wexford were spiking and at one point there were 18 cases in the school. “The Department of Public Health did a number of risk assessments, and the upshot was that they felt that the school had very robust measures in place,” says Finn.

I sanitise the desk without even thinking about it

Now there’s just one case, and that child was isolating for family reasons even before being infectious. Finn and his staff are pleased that they’ve made it through the term. He stresses how proud he is of the staff and students. “After the midterm you could feel the mood had lifted,” he says.

“We’re all used to it now,” a third year called Aoife O’Dowd tells me during the lunchbreak. “I sanitise the desk without even thinking about it.”

She’s one of several students I meet who are especially cautious because of vulnerable family members. “My mum had cancer but she’s cancer-free now.” Her mum has since temporarily moved in with her mother, Aoife’s grandmother, “so she doesn’t come too much in contact with us”.

They’re all glad to be in school. They tell me that they’ve learned to read each others’ moods despite the masks. Kayleigh Redmond Tomkins gestures at her friend Daniel Hayes. “Though you can’t tell with Daniel, because he’s so stoic.”

It is a bit less fun, she says. “If a teacher asks a question it’s much harder for the whole class to get involved… And you’ll get caught talking to your friends in class now.” She brightens for a moment. “But if they don’t know your voice, they can’t see who’s talking because of the mask so your grand.” They all laugh. You can tell she’s smiling behind the mask.

Third level: ‘I just haven’t met anyone, haven’t made a friend’

"When I think about it, wow, I just haven't met anyone. I haven't made a friend." Neasa Clancy is a first-year student of history, Irish and German at UCD, writes Deirdre Falvey. "I was there once," she says, talking about the campus in Belfield, where she visited the bookshop and library in September. Other than that she's now at home in Raheny, day-in day-out, laptop on knees, in her room too small for a desk, moving sometimes to the kitchen or living room, trying not to disturb her uncle, also working remotely.

“The ergonomics have not been ideal,” she says.

This Covid-adapted semester has been a difficult one for third-level students and staff. Some faculties have students on campus for labs and other hands-on work, but for many it’s been all or mostly virtual. Lecturers and tutors have had to adapt rapidly, finding innovative ways to reach students, learning new skills and restructuring classes.

Dr Ivar McGrath records his history lectures – “they’re rough and ready” – in his living room “with my laptop on top of a couple of boxes so I can stand up while doing it.”

I “attend” his last lecture, for about 330 first years, in the module “Ireland’s English Centuries 1460-1800”. This lecture examines 1735-1800, a penal era but also a golden age of art and architecture. Students are assigned reading, then they watch pre-recorded lectures in their own time. Divided into three manageable sections, with McGrath speaking along with  notes on slides, it’s well illustrated with drawings, pamphlets, photos and maps, as he explores interconnected themes of land, religion, identity and violence.

It’s interesting and quite intense, covering a long period and a lot of material in 40-odd minutes. He warns about disinformation from googling “penal laws” (the penal code, he points out, was enacted by the Irish parliament, pre-Act of Union, not Westminster). I find myself taking copious notes (the development of Dublin, improvements including canals, the growth of various political movements and ideologies, the campaign for union, pressure to repeal penal laws). Even in the digestible chunks, I have to work to stay focused.

Afterwards I “sit in” on a follow-up live seminar McGrath leads, via Brightspace in Virtual Classroom, with 16 students, examining primary sources, including John Rocque’s 1757 map of Dublin.

Students also have a discussion forum, typing responses to the week's lecture in their own time, and write an essay. It's a well thought-through, varied structure. 
McGrath and two of the students (including Neasa Clancy) have cameras on for the seminar, and about four or five contribute, often as dislocated voices. Students are expected to contribute at seminars (it's worth 10 per cent of grades) but lecturers and students, across the board, say a small proportion do so. "I didn't participate much, it's a bit intimidating," says Clancy.

Afterwards, McGrath talks about culture shock, for teachers and students, in the switch to online. “It’s been a challenge for us,” restructuring lectures, and not having contact they normally would with students after class, to gauge how they’re doing.

“The discussion forum sees the most engaged students taking part. The worry is those we don’t hear from.” Online it’s harder to get students to talk, and “we’re having to find new ways to draw them out”.

It’s also harder to judge if no-shows are because of the usual reasons (slept in, working, having fun) “or an indication of more serious issues or that a student is struggling”.

I can't tell you how hard it is to look at a screen for that long, straight, without interaction

He and colleagues report more people are logging in at seminars than might have in person, “but to judge how they have learned, we’ll have to get to the end of the semester to see grades. We’ll know more in January” about how this experiment has affected education.

A colleague in another faculty correcting third and fourth years' essays observes the standard has been very high, so "they're definitely all at home reading. But they're losing out on other things, not least learning from each other." 
Because students can replay lectures, or stop/start them, says McGrath, there's a "tendency to feed that back in essays rather than do the reading. The course is trying to get students to think."

And how is it from students’ point of view? “I can’t tell you how hard it is to look at a screen for that long, straight, without interaction,” says Neasa Clancy. “My attention span has gone so it’s hard to focus.” Lecturers encourage students to email with questions, but it’s more long-winded than asking in a lecture.

Most of her lectures are pre-recorded, mainly slides with the lecturer – sometimes on camera in a corner – speaking. One of her lectures is audio-only, “which is awfully difficult”.

“Everything you need, the resources, reading, it’s all there, online. Brightspace is a good system, in the circumstances.” But sitting at home watching lectures “doesn’t motivate me to learn more”.

Clancy talks about time lags, tech glitches and waiting for people to join. She takes notes. "I'm taking things in. I don't know if I'm learning."
Also, "it's hard to learn languages over Zoom, when I'm not hearing them on campus," she says.

I feel like I'm missing out on the typical college experience, but it's not as if I can never have that

She only has lectures in German but has a twice-weekly online Irish conversation class in small groups; it’s the only way she’s got to know people, “which is nice, but we have to talk about a given topic. And in Irish!”

For her, “the hardest part has been at home on my own. It’s so hard to get to know each other, and people are a bit hesitant to reach out on social media.”

She’s in a large support groupchat with 30 or 40 people for Irish. They discuss due dates or what things mean. “I don’t know any of the people there.” She follows others on Instagram “whose names I’ve seen in my class, and that’s a little acknowledgement to each other, that you’re in my course.”

Library and study spaces are open, but she’s too far away for it to be worth travelling without classes.

Clancy isn’t complaining. She knows lecturers are trying to make it work, and that others are in the same boat. She’s also sanguine that it’s not forever, and is hopeful about the vaccine, though they’ve been told classes are online for the foreseeable future. “I feel like I’m missing out on the typical college experience, but it’s not as if I can never have that.”

The shift from secondary school mentality to campus, “can be daunting, and liberating” observes McGrath. This year clubs and societies, freshers’ week, “essential parts of university life, the way they get to know people, get confidence to participate – they’re missing all that”. First years, just out of school, are “less willing to be seen on camera, in this virtual world, than more mature students”, who know their classmates. In a seminar of 18 or 19 students, he says, you “expect 16 silhouettes”.

From talking to students and lecturers in several institutions, this emerges as a theme of the semester. Lecturers are sometimes visible in a small corner of the screen, dominated by their slides, as they speak, and with hundreds of students, cameras are off.

But in seminars or tutorials of, say, 10 or 20 students, it seems rare for students to turn cameras on. Students and lecturers say it can be due to shyness, lack of confidence, intrusiveness or embarrassment about surroundings.

A second year psychology student in NUI Galway observes : “I kinda wish someone would put on their camera, then I would. I won’t if I’m the only one. It’s easier listening to someone speak when you can see their face.” Students often don’t have a mic on either, but contribute via onscreen chat.

NUI Galway’s semester started late she says, to allow for some campus classes (she was due four hours a week). Then live classes were ruled out; now her semester runs later, without a Christmas break, but also without the live classes it was planned to accommodate.

A third year social science student at NUI Galway says his class has just done video interviews for semester-long placements from January; most work experience will be online.

Classmates know each other but rarely show their faces, he says. Some turn cameras and mics on for smaller groups if the tutor encourages them to: “it’s better, definitely”. Students can attend the library; he reckons there are just 25 places over three floors, which are released online from midnight three days in advance, and are instantly booked out.

He mentions a recent meetup to discuss the class’s concerns. Of 20 students, “not one person spoke. If it was in person, people would definitely have spoken.” He thinks online learning has been a complete failure.

As the end of her first university semester looms, Neasa Clancy says she and friends from school, some at other colleges, are “a bit fed up. It’s reassuring that we all feel the same, we’re all struggling in the same way.

“I can’t believe it’s been 10 weeks online. It’s gone so quickly. I was excited at the start.” But, she says, it “didn’t meet expectations of how I imagined college life would be, before the pandemic”.

Jennifer O'Connell

Jennifer O'Connell

Jennifer O’Connell is Opinion Editor with The Irish Times

Patrick Freyne

Patrick Freyne

Patrick Freyne is a features writer with The Irish Times

Deirdre Falvey

Deirdre Falvey

Deirdre Falvey is a features and arts writer at The Irish Times