By Elizabeth Lee
SCHOOL principals across Co Carlow yesterday waited with “bated breath” to see what guidelines the Department of Education would recommend for schools to reopen next month. The department was due to issue its recommendations yesterday, but observers were predicting social distancing measures in classrooms, children being grouped into pods and rigorous cleaning.
Many principals, especially in small or older schools, are fearful that they won’t be able to abide by social distancing rules or keep children in specific ‘pods’ because they simply don’t have the space. Other concerns include having enough resources to keep the buildings clean and having the money to take on extra teachers when necessary.
Some schools were under stress even before the pandemic and are now considering how they’ll function at all under Covid-19 restrictions.
Carolyn Good, principal of Carrigduff NS in Bunclody, was dealt a further blow when the department granted the school an extension and a portacabin to accommodate a classroom before the extension was built. Then, just when all the paper work was sent into the department, she was told last month that they weren’t getting the temporary portacabin.
This means that the already overcrowded school is in real danger when trying to adhere to the new Covid regulations because it doesn’t have the space. As it stands, its special education teacher takes her classes in a storeroom, “under the stairs like Harry Potter,” said Ms Good.
“We have no hall or GP room, no shared assembly areas to repurpose. In normal circumstances I would think this a frustrating situation; reopening the school mid-pandemic … I think this is appalling and frankly dangerous. I feel very let down. The board of management and the parents of the school are devastated.
“We won’t be able to follow the guidelines. I’ve no idea how this is going to work,” she said, adding that one of the classrooms is so small that the pupils and their teacher were like “sardines” last year.
Simon Lewis is principal of the modern Educate Together school in Carlow town. It has almost 380 pupils, but Mr Lewis is apprehensive that the schools won’t be able to stay open for a long period. He sees the biggest problems around the department giving each school enough resources to help children with additional needs as well as extra staffing if a teacher gets sick.
There’s also the issue of how to keep a large building clean to regulation standards, with Mr Lewis calculating that Educate Together would need up to 70 hours a week for cleaning purposes to keep both staff and youngsters healthy.
“We don’t know how this is going to work, but it all depends on money and resources. Parents need their children to go back to school and parents need to go back to work. This is like chickens coming home to roost: we’ve been asking for more staff for years. Now that there’s a pandemic, we need it more than ever. How long we can stay open depends on how much resources we are given,” he predicted.
Like the other educators, Anne Ahern, principal of St Mary’s Academy CBS in Carlow, was anxiously awaiting the department’s guidelines yesterday afternoon.
“We’re waiting with bated breath here on one hand but, on the other, we’re not confident that they’ll give us clear guidelines because different schools have different infrastructure,” she said.
“I have to be honest, you could have sleepless nights over this, but we know that we need to go back. There are so many aspects to school, and learning is only one aspect. Students need support from their teachers and they need each other. Our school is older so we have to try to minimise movement and introduce a one-way system. There are so many concerns surrounding immuno-compromised students and staff, too. This is going to be so challenging in every sense of the word, but they’re challenges that we’ll have to meet head-on.”
Ms Good is equally determined that the youngsters and their teachers in Carrigduff NS will return.
“We will, of course, rally and do our best for the pupils. We’ve been bridging gaps for the department for years and we’ll just have to do it again,” concluded Ms Good.