School system is under strain
Sir, – I would entirely concur with much of the analysis presented in the article “Covid response leaves no surprise that tensions are rising across school system” (Selina McCoy and Eamonn Carroll, Opinion & Analysis, September 23rd).
The reopening of the Irish primary school system over the last few weeks has been a success, the vast majority of schools opened and have remained open, and the vast majority of pupils are now back in school.
However, this success has come at a heavy price for principals.
The sudden closure of school buildings, the need to build a remote communication and learning capability, delivering the schools meals programme, and July provision for children with special needs were all demanding, but nothing compared to the effort needed to reopen schools.
Not only did most principals get little or no break over the summer, they worked harder than ever before under very stressful conditions to deliver a successful school reopening.
One indication of both the effort, and the level of strain principals are operating is that calls to the query line of the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association (CPSMA) trebled over the summer.
The CPSMA has never in its history experienced such a high level of calls. It was busier for the three months of summer than it was for the October to December of last year, which to now had been our busiest period.
Since the schools have opened the call volumes have not abated, and from August 31st to September 21st, we received 1,240 calls.
The stress which principals are experiencing is acute and palpable in the calls we receive. It is also evident in the reports we are receiving from around the country of principals taking or actively considering taking early retirement.
I have never had any doubt, knowing as I do the quality and calibre of people who lead, teach in, and manage our schools that primary schools would open successfully.
Nor have I the slightest doubt that if we provide the right supports that they will remain open.
However, the single greatest challenge facing us now is how do we support principals to reach the October break, and get some respite, and then to reach Christmas and some much needed time to recover and refresh.
The first and most basic step is to provide a dedicated HSE Covid-19 query line to ensure speedy contact and consistent guidance for schools dealing with suspected or confirmed cases which is available out of office hours and at weekends.
We strongly support calls by our colleagues in the Irish Primary Principals’ Network for such a service. We would also support calls by the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation for a sector-specific testing and tracing service given the strategic importance of education.
What is most needed now is not an inspection regime but a quick assessment of what is working and not working in schools, and an identification and implementation of additional measures to support school principals.
If we support the principals properly, they will keep the schools open, because they know as no one else does the value of education in school to our young people. As one principal told me, “An hour in the class room is worth a week of distance learning.” – Yours, etc,