When she went into Holy Rosary College in Mountbellew, Co Galway last week, Niamh Kilkenny could see pretty much straight away that she wasn't going back to the same school. The teachers' tables were the most obvious thing. Every one of them comes now with a Perspex screen at the front, a physical barrier separating the teacher from the students. It was like she left a classroom in March and came back to a bank-teller's booth in August.
“It’s all different,” says camogie’s 2019 Player of the Year. “We have protocols about facemasks and hand sanitising and everything else of course. When you walk into the staff room, the desks are all spread out. They used to all be together and you’d be able to sit around them together. But everything is two metres apart now so even just the social aspect of the staff room is going to be different.
“It’s going to be a different way of teaching. Trying to do group-work is going to be a challenge. Trying to get the students to engage or interact, which is often a good way to get across what you’re teaching them, that’s going to be a challenge as well.
“Before, you might have them in groups around the classroom working on things but you can’t do that now. You are restricted in some ways but I think you’ll just have to adapt. Coming from a place where we were doing virtual teaching, getting back into the classroom is going to be a massive help.”
This is the week it all starts back. For half of the weirdest year of all our lives, teachers have had no place to be. Rootless, ever-so slightly directionless, uncertain as to what they’re going back to. Teaching in normal times offers such certainty of routine that every intercounty squad is more or less guaranteed to have a few múinteoirí scattered through it. That means a lot of GAA players digging out their respectable clothes again in the past few days.
"We were up there last week," says Galway hurler Aidan Harte, a teacher in St Joseph's Secondary School in Tulla, Co Clare. "There was art on the walls from some of the junior classes and the walls had to be cleared before the start of the year so we were up doing that. And we were in setting up computers and desks and that kind of thing.
“The guidelines have been put in place so we will follow them and see what happens for the first few weeks initially. The main thing is that it’s best to be in the school with the kids. It’s a lot easier for kids than being at home. Some of them mightn’t have the best set-ups at home as regards internet access or whatever else. Even explaining things to kids, it’s a lot easier when they’re there in the room with you.”
Into this new world, it’s impossible to know yet how or where sport is going to fit. Already, competitions like the Harty Cup and Corn Uí Mhuirí have been restructured and put back until after Christmas. Even then, everyone knows that the fixtures have been written in invisible ink – the next few months will be a process of finding a way for them to be made legible. Right now, schools are going to be occupied with far more basic concerns when it comes to sport.
“We’re going to find out about sports and even just PE as we go along,” says Kilkenny. “Some schools are going to be using the PE hall as classrooms. It’s going to depend on the needs of the school and whether they’re able to carry out social distancing. When it comes to GAA and other sports, we just don’t know yet. I think each school will feel it out as we go along.
“But it’s going to be important that sport continues and that activities return in some way. The big change is that students are staying in one room, the teachers are coming in and out to them. So even that walking between class, going from one class to the other is gone. They’re going to be very sedentary. We have to make sure that in some way we can incorporate a way for them to be active. Health and safety will be paramount to start off. But sport will have to happen in some shape or form.”
As of now, the priority is to get kids and teachers back into the classrooms. Sport is on the list of jobs every school has to work its way through in the coming weeks but in most cases, it has been shunted well down that list. So much so that five different teachers approached for this article – all of them on intercounty squads – said thanks but no thanks to having a chat about it. Sport will find its place but nobody has a good guess as to where that place will be.
“It’s very early to know what it’s going to be like,” says Harte. “Thankfully, we haven’t had any need to use our PE hall as a classroom, as of now anyway. But as we know, the Irish weather isn’t going to be conducive to doing PE outside through the winter so something will have to be worked out in those schools that do.
“So far, our Harty Cup competitions are down in the fixture lists for next January so as far as we know, hurling will be going ahead, which is great. And obviously, look, that side of things, be it hurling, football, camogie, music, whatever it is – those extra-curricular things are so important when it comes to school. The classroom is important but anything you can get kids into outside of the books is vital too.”
There is, of course, an added layer to the job this time around. For Kilkenny, Harte and every other intercounty teacher, the unprecedented prospect of a winter championship is looming. They’ll only be back at school a fortnight when intercounty training kicks in. Back to school has always been the time when they could ease off, train less, eat more, live life. Not so this time around.
The upside-downness of 2020 means that the coming month will be all about ramping up for championship. The old ways held that teachers could take it handiest when the stakes were highest. They could rest when the rest of the panel was at work, they could do their recovery on a Monday morning when their team-mates were stuck in commuter treacle. As with everything else, this time is different.
On top of which, there is no telling yet what risk teachers are running simply by going to work. Everybody is hoping that schools are safe but we won’t know until we know. It’s highly unlikely that an intercounty panel is going to be affected by a Covid cluster in a meat factory or a direct provision centre. But with so many teachers from so many teams in so many schools, it won’t be a shock if a case emerges to hobble somebody’s season.
“It has crossed my mind, of course it has,” says Kilkenny. “Schools are going to be one of the few places that have a number of people in the one building. But responsibility falls on the individual as well. You have to make sure you do all the things that hold the virus at bay. The school has various sanitation stations, there is Covid training for students and for teachers.
“But yeah, it has crossed my mind all right. Hopefully it won’t interrupt training with the club or with Galway whenever we get back with them. You just have to try to stick to the guidelines, stay two metres apart from people, wash your hands, sanitise, all the things you’re supposed to do. I just have to try and stay safe.”
For 32-year-old Harte, there’s a Father Time issue as well. He’s been in and around the Galway panel since late 2007 and is closer to the end of his intercounty career than the start of it. If it is played at all, the window for the 2020 championship is going to be vanishingly tight. He doesn’t have time for a visit from the Covid goblins. None of them do.
“In a normal year, you’re only ever a week or two back at school when you find yourself with a bit of a sore throat or a bit of a cough,” he laughs. “Maybe it’s from raising the voice a little or whatever but it’s something that happens most years. So like that, we’re playing a guessing game.
“Of course, you would be worried. And in my situation, where I’m getting on in years, you don’t really know how many seasons you have left. You don’t know where you’re going to be next year. At the moment, I’m injured, I’ve only played a half an hour in my club’s three games.
“But look, we’ll go with the guidelines. None of us are medical experts. You can’t keep living in the fear and thinking in the fear. The last five months have taught us all that life is there to be got on with. You can’t live these days again.”