Making up for lost time

Features

BACK TO SCHOOL A welcome back sign which greets pupils returning to St Anthony’s Special School in Castlebar.

Castlebar

Edwin McGreal

Motivating their children was the biggest challenge parents of pupils in St Anthony’s Special School in Castlebar found during lockdown.
That’s the result of a survey carried out by the school to establish how parents were finding remote learning since the school closed its doors to pupils in March.
“The most difficulty parents found was motivating their child,” school principal Fiona Byrnes told The Mayo News. “The other big thing was prioritising the care of their child, the health and medical and behavioural needs of their child. There were the biggest things we found – the motivation of the child and needing to prioritise and the care needs of the child.
“Parents were missing the supports that go with schools, they had no access to therapists –speech and language, physio, OT. When the children come to our school, they have the class teachers and SNAs and we also link in with the services so it’s kind of a one stop shop and all that was gone,” Ms Byrnes said.
The school contacted every family at the outset and tried to go down the virtual learning route, where possible. They had just introduced Google for Education in the school before lockdown so every child could be given their own email address so this helped but the success of remote learning was ‘hit and miss’.
Poor quality broadband was a barrier to remote learning for some, Ms Byrnes added while not every family had enough computer equipment for all the children to be able to do school work at home and other children might struggle to use virtual learning platforms, said Ms Byrnes.
For those who did have computers, the lack of a printer was often an issue so the school ended up posting out schoolwork.
“We weren’t fully ready, parents weren’t fully ready and pupils weren’t ready and pupils may not have been able to access it, parents may not have been able to access it due to issues like connectivity and broadband, lack of equipment, lack of experience, lack of training.
“Some teachers were able to connect via via Zoom or Google Meets but it was more of a catch up and support really.
“SNAs did try to link in but trying to support children with special needs virtually is difficult and is one thing the government did not realise. It is all very well saying you can work from home but that is very hard for a special needs assistant because they are there to support the physical care needs and the sensory care needs of children and you cannot do that virtually,” said Ms Byrnes.

Back in action
It will come as no surprise that all at the school are delighted to have their doors reopened now after a ‘very busy’ month of August making preparations for the new reality.
There’s 53 pupils on the rolls and a total of 35 staff. The school caters for pupils from ages four-18 and from as far away as Achill, Louisburgh, Ballyhaunis and Charlestown.
There are four bubbles in the school, one for the 18 primary school children, two bubbles for the post primary cohort and bubble for staff like Ms Byrnes, the school nurse and others who may crossover from different areas of the school.
Within each bubble is pods based on classrooms and Ms Byrnes the pods within each bubble might only meet where two classes may be in the yard together or in the canteen, but still kept separate. Children from separate bubbles do not mix in the school, she adds.
“We were delighted to get the children back and most of our children are back there, maybe one or two who are maybe very high risk and have to return weight at home at the moment and we are trying to support them as best we can.
“We’re doing everything that has been recommended. What we’re trying to do is keep things as close to the normal, pre Covid experience as possible, where that can happen.
“Teachers and SNAs wearing masks and visors is certainly not the way we want it to continue long-term. So we hope that if everyone does what they can do, that we can get through this Covid year and hopefully 2021 would bring us back to a place where we don’t have to wear visors and masks and be able to deal normally with the children who need us,” she stated.