Tuesday, September 01, 2020

First year students wearing face masks during their first day at St Mary’s Academy CBS, Carlow last week Photo: michaelorourkephotography.ie


By Elizabeth Lee and Michael Tracey

THE safe return to the classroom is another lesson to learn. Students and staff will have to develop new habits, new practices.

Carlow students began returning to the classroom last week, a very different classroom to the one they left in March.

St Mary’s Academy CBS principal Anne Ahern was “very, very pleased” with how their reopening had gone but did not underestimate the challenges that students will face.

In St Mary’s there is a one-way system and, of course, the wearing of masks. There are specific toilets for different year groups, segregated breaks, designated entrance points for different year groups and ‘de-foggers’ deployed after the school day.

Around 170 first years and sixth years were the first students to be brought back to St Mary’s. It was felt they were the most disadvantaged groups. First years missed out finishing primary school in the classrooms and preparation for secondary level, while the leaving cert boys have had upheaval in their senior cycle.

“The sixth years will find it harder to adjust than our first years. For our first years that came into us, this is the norm in the school, even though it’s quite abnormal. Our sixth years would be used to this building, the way we do things, the very good relations between teachers and students in the corridor and meeting people. All of that has to stop.”

She said: “It’s such a strange sight to walk into a classroom and look at 28 students with masks on them. I don’t underestimate the challenge for students at all. I really don’t.”

It’s been a mammoth task for schools to reopen safely. In St Leo’s College, each classroom had to be reconfigured and double desks replaced.

More than 1,200 lessons take place in St Leo’s each week and every class had to be organised with a view to maximising student accommodation and minimising movement. Last week, the school organised a four-day induction programme for students.

Schools have to work doubly hard to foster a warm and fun environment.

St Leo’s strove to connect with its new first years. Each first year was invited to send in a piece of art as an introduction and principal Niamh Broderick wrote to all of them personally. There was even a fun Zoom quiz in June to begin to foster that unique togetherness of secondary school.

Ms Broderick said: “Our school, just like every other school in the country, may look different and perhaps even clinical, but we will strive to maintain what is critically important: the warm St Leo’s College welcome, the promotion of the CEIST (Catholic Education An Irish Schools’ Trust) core values, excellence in teaching and learning, our commitment to the individual and the provision of holistic education for our students.”

In St Mary’s, first years were also brought to CBS-owned grounds opposite Carlow Town Hurling Club for an activities day last week with PE teachers, Meithal leaders, year head and class teachers.

FCJ Bunclody principal Brendan Daly has unique challenges in keeping his charges safe because of two deciding factors – one is the size of the school, where more than 1,000 students, teachers and staff are all working together; the other is the school’s catchment area. Its students come from counties Carlow, Wicklow and Wexford.

There are 960 students in FCJ, of whom 180 are first years. First years will be welcomed into the school in three batches of 60, thus avoiding large gatherings and assemblies.

To cope with the large numbers of boys and girls, the school is now split into five main buildings, where each year has its own learning centre..

“We have over 1,000 people here, so there are challenges, but we’ve a huge campus, so people can be spread out,” added Mr Daly.

The real test for many schools comes this week as the full complement of students return. Schools also cannot avoid the prospect that remote learning may again play a part and they will have to plan accordingly.

Ms Ahern summed it up by saying “we are living in a world with more unknowns than knowns; that is the reality”.


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