Managing in the new normal


THE NEW NORMAL A social distancing sign at St Joseph’s Primary School, Ballinrobe. Pic: Michael McLaughlin

The world has changed utterly for primary school children

Edwin McGreal

Between them, Dymphna Culhane and George Moran have responsibility for almost 900 national school children.
Principals of St Joseph’s, Ballinrobe and Breaffy NS respectively, two of the largest national schools in the county, both have been at the coalface for seismic changes in education since Covid-19 first arrived at our shores in March 2020.
First there was the challenge of home schooling. Lessons were conducted online, books were delivered to homes while iPads were also loaned out where they were needed.
Schools reopened their doors to children then in September 2020.
There were the ‘on-site’ challenges of pods, bubbles, reducing congregation, mask wearing for staff – and soon for children from third class and up – and many more public health measures.
“Initially the different measures were a challenge but at this stage, everyone is used to it,” Dymphna Culhane told The Mayo News.
“Staff are used to wearing masks, even if everyone might not love wearing them! The children have adapted really well and are used to what is asked of them and the parents have been very supportive,” she said.
“Parents have been very good at implementing guidelines and staff have been very co-operative. Most of all pupils have been brilliant at complying with the changes,” added George Moran.
Both schools have carbon dioxide monitors in classrooms, which informs them when either more ventilation or a spell outdoors is needed.
“In every classroom the windows are open and the door is too. We’ve the heat on and windows open. It is warm enough and we’ve got used to it,” explained Dymphna Culhane.

The very nature of the schools day changed radically also. In Ballinrobe, St Joseph’s staggered entry times to have staff in at 8.30am and open the doors for children at 8.35am, 15 minutes before school starts at 8.50am. There are 445 children, 29 teachers and eight SNAs in the school. There are 17 classrooms, two for every class except for Senior Infants, which has three classrooms.
“It all helps to reduce congestion and traffic, by allowing more time for children to arrive. We have encouraged children to walk to school and many are doing this which is reducing traffic as well,” said Ms Culhane.
Breaks are split up too, so that one half of the school is out first and when they come in, the other half goes out.
Infants finish school first while there is a subtle three minute split with finishing times for other classes, to cut back on congregation.
Breaffy have similar numbers with 430 children, 28 teachers, seven special needs assistants in 16 mainstream classes and their newly opened autism unit.
They’ve split the school in half for entry and exit times, as George Moran explains.
“From the very beginning anywhere congregation was a big issue, so we reduced it. So we have a staggered start, an A shift and a B shift. The A shift starts at 8.30am and the kids are in their class by 8.40am. For the B shift, the kids are in their class by 8.50am. It cuts down on congregation outside the school and cuts down on traffic too.
“We surveyed parents on this and 96 percent of them are happy with staggered starts,” he explained.
They run a similar arrangement for breaks as Ballinrobe.
Breaffy NS have also rolled out a subsidised breakfast club, infant happy hour and afterschool service in the community centre on the site. In fact it was the old national school before the new school opened in 1990.
It means working parents can drop kids to the breakfast club from 7.45am and the afterschool service is open until 6pm. It is run by Eileen McNeela of Acorns Academy in Manulla. There is a preschool also on site run by Tracy Keohane of Little VIPs.
“It is a great success to have both on site,” explains Mr Moran.
When they had no afterschool service from September 2020 to January of this year, infant teachers and volunteers agreed to mind infants in the afternoon, when parents had no childminding service.
Due to Covid, graduations, sports days and talent shows were reinvented to ensure they were safe. A graduation in Breaffy House was one of the flagship events and had 40,000 views on social media.
The large scale Christmas concert productions are not possible this year and parent teacher meetings will not be face-to-face for the moment.
In Ballinrobe, they’ve gently reintroduced sports like Gaelic football, soccer and tag rugby. Lockdown was not a complete negative either and it has opened doors to a lot of virtual classes for students from children’s authors and, most recently, a presentation to fifth class pupils by the Children’s Ombudsman.
After all, the 20 months have been all about adapting. And children have had to adapt more than most.