SCHOOL WITH A VIEW St Columba’s NS on Inishturk can boast some spectacular views, far removed from the threat of Covid-19.
One of the oldest yet most isolated schools in the country was among the thousands of national schools which shut their doors on March 12.
Founded in 1885, St Columba’s National School on Inishturk finds itself at a unique advantage during the age of Covid-19. Located on 2.3 square miles of rock, nine miles off Mayo’s wild Atlantic coast, the school and the wider community are more than suited to shielding themselves from the dreaded disease.
Having once had an enrolment of between 100 and 200 students, there are currently ten children attending the only school on an island, which now has a population of 61.
While the island has remained Covid-free, the school still had to close its doors in the spring.
As school principal Anne McLoughlin told The Mayo News: “We didn’t think it through at the time. I’ve a place in Ardrahan and I was no sooner home than I thought, ‘If I stayed, we might have got permission to open’.”
She added: “It was very difficult to support the school when we weren’t in the school. I was one of the last teachers to go back into the school after the lockdown because the island was shut until June. Whereas other teachers had permission to go back into the school in May, I didn’t get back until June and we were playing catch-up for the summer in terms of getting the school Covid ready.”
While viral videos of drive-by birthday parties did the rounds of the mainland, the children of Inishturk were able to mix as normal while the island shut to visitors.
Despite being one of the most ideal locations in the world for self-isolation, the tight-knit community continues to take the pandemic just as seriously as anywhere else.
As Anne explains: “The population for the most part is quite elderly, so they would’ve been quite a vulnerable population. As a result, I think the island as a whole was particularly careful in terms of protecting everybody.
“On the one hand, the island was safe … because no one was coming in and out. But at the same time, they were being careful about mixing, they were careful about staying at home as much as possible, and they still are.”
As well as the original school building, the 135-year-old school currently boasts a pre-fab, office and kitchen facilities, as well as a reliable internet connection for both its teachers.
As a teacher, Anne has found social distancing far easier than most while teaching her classroom of ten – which includes two German children.
“As a teacher you do have to be careful and observe the social distancing,” she says.
“It’s very easy to keep one-to-two metres from the children in the classroom. It’s very easy to get them to stay in their places and do what needs to be done to make sure that we’re all being safe, cleaning down tabletops and doing their regular stuff.”
She adds: “The kids are aware of it. It is a funny one, because they’ve been socialising as normal for months. They know there’s a bad virus out there and that they have to be careful, but it wouldn’t be as obvious to them as kids on the mainland that didn’t have playdates for months, or who weren’t going to football training regularly. You talk about pods in schools, they were one giant pod anyhow. They are used to socialising among themselves and entertaining themselves in a way that children on the mainland aren’t.”
Anne also says the small numbers and similar age profile of the students has made it easier to catch up on time lost during the spring.
“I’ve spent most of last month trying to identify gaps and fill in those gaps so there will be a bit of catch-up, but it will be done fairly easily in that group.”
While the children have been able to mingle amongst themselves more than most, Anne says the return of a regular routine has been welcomed by students and teachers alike.
“I cannot believe how much they love being back in a routine,” Anne says.
“Everywhere they’re delighted to be back, delighted to be in a routine, and delighted to be meeting up with their friends. There was a lot of work done by the parents here on the island so there wasn’t a huge amount of catch-up.”
The Claremorris native believes that the potential for remote working exposed by the pandemic could ensure the future viability of the school and indeed the island.
“It really depends on the people. I think given the uncertainty of Covid, if you’d a scenario where you’d a child with a health worry you couldn’t pick a safer place than here, particularly if you can work remotely.
“It’s a wonderful place to bring up children and the islanders themselves are quite unique. It’s lovely, it really is.”