FOCUSING ON THE POSITIVES A sign on display in Our Lady’s in Belmullet enforces a positive message. The school has seen attendance numbers climb as students seek the structure of school life during the pandemic.
In the midst of humanity’s battle with Covid-19, finding a ‘happy place’ isn’t always easy. However, on the edge of the Atlantic, where the ocean kisses the clay, there’s an oasis of ‘normal’. Our Lady’s Secondary School in Belmullet has been at the centre of Erris life since 1943 and now more than ever the school’s sense of calm, comfort and community is a welcome distraction.
School Principal Edmund Holmes is well aware of the needs, opportunities and challenges being experienced within the walls at this pivotal time in school’s history. He’s a product of the locality, came to Our Lady’s in the back of an old yellow school bus, wore the famed yellow and maroon football jersey before returning to teach the next generation.
Now, he and the entire school community are facing challenges they never envisaged – not even in their wildest dreams.
“It is, and has been, the greatest challenge we’ll ever face as a school community. Our Lady’s is a school for everyone – a school embedded in the community and it has been a testing time over the past nine months. However, the response of students, families and staff has been nothing short of brilliant.
“We made a clear effort to keep school as normal an experience for students as possible and that has been successful. Of course, everything is different now – designated seats, designated classrooms, split breaks, masks – but there’s a great sense of togetherness from everyone.
“Of course, this poses challenges for all. Proper interaction from behind a mask isn’t easy, split breaks require double the amount of supervision, important events aren’t taking place and there’s no competitive sport, but the sense of community and connection within the school has been very evident.
“Thankfully, we had no cases in the school up to Christmas due to the cooperation and support of the students’ parents and staff. When the students came back to school in September they were hesitant for the first week, but quickly adapted to the new normal. They have been brilliant, but in the weeks before Christmas it began to take its toll. The whole monotony of the pandemic was adding extra pressures to student life. Classes involve less peer group work, and student collaboration due to social distancing. Teachers have to adapt and innovate more. Simple things take longer and there has been more demand on counselling and wellbeing supports, particularly during the Level 5 lockdown.
“We’re not sure what January will bring, when everyone comes back but we’ll support one another and get through it,” the principal stated before adding that amidst all the cancellations, Zoom calls and regulations, one interesting statistic signals the importance of Our Lady’s to the life of the local community – attendance has increased.
“We always had high attendance here, but it’s higher than ever now. The routine and structure of school and getting out of the house has never been more important and we’re seeing that every day.
“Of course it has been very tough too. There was no graduation ceremony for last year’s Leaving Certs, there has been no musical for this year’s Transition Years, no school concert, no sport and that’s a big thing here.”
Our Lady’s is renowned for its sporting achievements. Three past pupils helped the green and red to the battle for Sam Maguire just a few weeks ago; six All-Ireland titles have been won on the pitch; world boxing titles annexed in the ring; the turf of Croke Park, Wembley, The Aviva and Gaelic Park trodden, so the lack of that outlet is tough on students and teachers alike.
“Sport and extra-curricular activities are a great release for everyone, but that’s not available right now. We’ve kept PE going as much as possible but it’s not easy,” Edmund explained, before being listing the challenges facing his school over the coming weeks and months.
“The big problem is the ongoing uncertainty for staff, students and parents with the potential for change in restrictions from week to week. Students need as much certainty as possible so definite decisions need to be made around Leaving Cert and Junior Cert terminal exams.
“Junior Cert could be changed to in-school assessments, which would be a great relief and if schools were informed of this they could plan for it now before mock exams are done.
“Also, the availability of substitute teachers is going to be huge problem after Christmas as more and more people isolate due to close contacts. It’s worrying, it’s challenging, but we will support each other and get through it.
“Here in Our Lady’s we pride ourselves in taking care of one another and that’s what we will continue to do as a school and a community. There are better days ahead.”