2020 VISION Principal of Knockrooskey NS, Westport Kieran Geraghty pictured with his faceshield outside the school.
At the start of March, children from as far away as Mayo Abbey and Ballinrobe were getting a bus to Knockrooskey National School, outside Westport, to attend the school’s state of the art autism unit.
Suddenly, the school was closed as lockdown hit and parents and children were left in limbo. It was difficult for children in the mainstream classrooms but much more so for those in the autism unit.
“Lockdown was especially difficult for children in the unit,” said the principal of Knockrooskey NS, Kieran Geraghty. “Every child needs routine but a child with a diagnosis of autism requires it 100 times more.
“We endeavoured to reach out to them as far as we could. A lot of teachers were proactive in terms of sharing of resources and dropping things off when conditions allowed. We were, on one hand, aware of restrictions and, on the other hand, cognisant of the need,” he said.
“It’s wonderful to be able to have those children back to school and reestablish routine and start teaching them again. It’s life as usual back in school. We don’t talk to the kids in the unit about Covid, we just get on and do our business,” said Mr Geraghty.
The school reopened on Monday, August 31 for its 208 children, of which there are 22 in the autism unit.
Social distancing is not expected in the unit but with a ratio of three adults (one teacher and two special needs assistants) to six children in the unit, each classroom of six kids makes its own effective pod anyway.
The main difficulty is the lack of outside support due to Covid restrictions.
“Services that we can usually avail of like your OT (occupational therapy), your speech therapy, all of those other services, outside services, very important services, have all been cut because of Covid, because of restrictions on those people traveling,” explained Kieran Geraghty.
Not having parents coming into the school is a ‘big culture shock’, he testifies but adds they’ve had ‘wonderful compliance’ to what they’ve asked of children and parents.
All through the school, pods are in place in the different classrooms with break times staggered differently and arrivals in the morning staggered across a half hour time frame, with infants coming in last to give those parents ‘more time and space’.
There were, he admits, a lot of concerns in the first week from children in the mainstream classes returning to school with the ever-present threat of Covid.
“I was quite surprised by the level of anxiety we encountered in the early days. Children were worried about Covid and what would happen if we got Covid.
“But we have reassured the children that if it happens, we will deal with it. And we will deal with it in line with the HSE guidelines without hiding anything from them. Children often look to the teachers and the adults to reassure them and we’ve provided that reassurance and things have settled. It really is business as usual in the classrooms.
“The hand washing and hygiene and all of that, the children are very conscious of that. Those routines are well established. All the adults are wearing masks or visors. Children under 13 don’t have to wear masks.
“The big changes are the pods and bubbles have changed the life in the classroom. It’s similar to group work in a way. They’re staying separate in the classrooms,” said Mr Geraghty.
With a Covid case confirmed in a school in Mayo this week, Kieran Geraghty is optimistic that if a case comes to Knockrooskey, it won’t shut down the entire school.
“I’m not anticipating the schools will be closed down again. I’m anticipating that if a child in our school gets Covid, that the child’s pod or the classroom will have to shut down but I don’t envisage that the whole school will shut down. That seems to be the way it’s going, unless there was a widespread outbreak.”
For now, everyone is relishing being back after a longer summer holiday than they could ever have imagined.
“School is more than just education. School is social. The children are delighted to be in each other’s company. The tension of the early days has lifted, and there’s a lovely atmosphere around the school. You can certainly notice that kids are happy to be back. And they’re expressing that as well, which is lovely to hear,” he said.