OVER 500 students will make their way through the doors of St Mary’s Secondary School, Ballina this week as the all-girls school take its first steps back to a small semblance of normality.
Other than the 96 First Years who start today (Tuesday), that normality is worlds apart from the one they experienced last Spring before Covid-19 cut their school year short.
Gone are the old school days and in are the new ones made up of one-way systems, face masks, social distancing in classrooms, 120 hand sanitising stations and all the others facets that form what the students and teachers will now experience as normal day-to-day life.
“It’s going to be different for everyone,” school principal Robert O’Reilly told The Mayo News this week. “We have had a lot of staff coming in over the last few weeks and it’s a bit of a shock when they see how the tables are spread out and the reality kind of bites to them as to how completely different it is.
“The last six weeks have been extremely busy. Once we got the Roadmap we got an idea of where we were going and what we needed to do and once we met as a team, the very first thing was to look at our spaces.
“We were literally going around with a laser and measuring tape to make sure we had the area and then we had to look at class sizes and allocate different blocks in the school to the different groups of students.
“The students won’t be moving around anymore, it’s a big thing for staff to give up their rooms they they’ve worked so hard to decorate. There’s years of resources in those rooms and it wasn’t easy clearing everything out except the table and chairs to maximise space.”
St Mary’s are due to start work on a new school building next month and while they’ve often cursed the old building in the past, Robert admitted that the block-style layout has helped segregate the students into five areas.
However, Robert admitted that their biggest challenge has been remodelling the school to allow for the addition of a prefab staff-room to cater for the social distance requirements, three other work areas for teachers in between the staggered break times, a new computer room, and knocking a partition wall.
“The biggest challenge is the redesign and the remodeling of an old school building with old classrooms and trying to make those classrooms work,” he said. “We’ve electricians here for three weeks now rewiring classrooms and helping us put in a new computer space as our old room can now only hold a maximum of 24 people.
“In one block we had to knock a partition wall that was between two rooms, built probably, 50 or 60 years ago, but we now have a good space for our Transition Years.”
Staff and parent information nights took place online over the last few weeks and Robert was fulsome in his praise for both, particularly the parents who he says are naturally apprehensive but fully supportive.
“Parents have been very good to us, they’ve offered a huge amount of help, very supportive, despite being a small bit apprehensive, which is understandable,” he said. “They’re looking forward to the girls getting back to school, not just for educational purposes but for a variety of reasons.
“No parent has been on to me to say that they don’t want their kids back, so now it’s just about everyone being a bit more responsible, stemming from every member of staff, every student, to look after each other and take those practical steps because if we all do that we should be fine.”
The motto being used by the school over the next few weeks is ‘Take it Slow’. They feel they’re in a good position curriculum wise and don’t need to exert any more pressure on their students.
They’ll be taking a continual learning outlook for how they are doing everything so they can tweak and improve as they go.
It will be a major period of adaption for the school, but Robert says they are in the best possible position they can be thanks to a communal effort over the past number of weeks from staff, students, local contractors and the parents, who have all ‘really put their shoulders to the wheel’.