The safe reopening of schools in early September after six months of closure was always going to prove an enormous task. Under the regulations which were in place at the time, only 15 people could gather outdoors while all sporting events were to be played behind closed doors.
For secondary schools who could have over 500 people under one roof at any given time, ‘the great reopening’ was always going to be extremely challenging.
Principal of Ballyhaunis Community School David McDonagh says they have had great success over the past four months, which overlapped with six weeks of Level 5 restrictions.
“To get to this stage of the year with the success we’ve had, I’d have bitten your hand off,” Mr McDonagh told The Mayo News.
“[When] the government published their roadmap to reopening schools at the end of July we were certainly overawed at the level of preparation that was needed to get our schools open in a safe manner.
“We put our shoulder to the wheel and began to look at ways of making the school safer logistically in terms of timetable and break times and providing the necessary infrastructure in terms of hand sanitizer, face masks and social distancing. It was a huge, huge undertaking, a mammoth task.”
Even with a recent €10 million refurbishment of their buildings, the adjustment to running a school during a pandemic has been a challenging one for all involved. However, Mr McDonagh insists that students have risen to the task.
“We have four break times as opposed to two so I’m out and about meeting students and trying to gauge at all times how they feel about the restrictions we’ve put in place to keep them safe.
“In September students would’ve found the mask-wearing challenging. Their ears were getting sore and it was a barrier to communication, but slowly as the months unfolded, they began to become accustomed to the mask wearing.
“We’re very conscious of the fact that they’re masked up from early in the morning … but the students have been wonderful in the level of cooperation.”
Mr McDonagh says that teachers have also stepped up to adapt to the new restrictions. The former Mayo footballer adds that use of online learning has helped ensure that there hasn’t been a huge lag in work to catch up on from the previous year.
“We are in a global pandemic and people have stepped up in that regard. A terrific amount of work has been done in the classroom … there’s been very few disruptions to the work in the classroom with the lack of extracurricular activity.
“The teachers have really gotten on with the work but certainly anxiety levels have increased. They’re perhaps conscious of their own health and their family. They have taken the precautions required and they’ve been quick just to get on with their job without looking for any special praise.
“I think when the story of the pandemic is written teachers will get the credit they deserve in operating in what has been a very challenging environment. They’ve gotten on without any great fanfare or any great fuss and we’d be greatly pleased with the work that’s been done in the class since September.”
The recent explosion in confirmed Covid-19 cases in Mayo and all over the country has cast doubt about the prospect of the safe return of schools. As it stands, schools will not reopen until January 11, a postponement which Mr McDonagh says he fully supports.
“I very much welcome it. It was a very logical decision by the Department. We are operating in a Level 5 scenario, so I am hoping that students and their families restrict their numbers and keep their contacts low for the next number of days.
“We return to school on January 11 to an environment where everybody is safe and well and everybody has made the sacrifices necessary to keep the school community safe.”
Mr McDonagh insists that keeping schools open safely is essential to the education and overall welfare of students. He is also optimistic that an effective vaccine rollout will allow state exams to take place in June as scheduled.
“There’s no doubt about it, school addresses far more than just education for young people, however I don’t think schools should be kept open at all costs. I think schools should be kept open if they’re proven to be a safe and secure environment for students and staff,” he says.
“The evidence since September is that there have been outbreaks in schools. As far as I am aware, they were handled quite well by the schools themselves and by the Department and I think if we continue that approach than we should be okay.
“I think we should keep schools safe and secure. We all have a role to play in that.”