Life at school in Covid times

Features

A WATCHFUL EYE Main pic and below left, Holy Trinity NS Principal Orla Brickenden with pupils in the school’s Junior Room. Pic: Michael McLaughlin

Holy Trinity NS in Westport opened their doors to The Mayo News to see just how they are coping in Covid times

Analysis
Edwin McGreal

The heating bill in Holy Trinity NS in Westport has went through the roof this year – and out the windows too.
Trying to get the balance right between keeping kids warm and allowing a sufficient amount of fresh air to circulate in the classrooms to reduce the risk of the spread of Covid-19 has been a huge challenge.
It is not made easier by the reality the church of Ireland school building on the Newport Road is one of the oldest school buildings in Connacht, over 200 years old.
High roofs, old stone walls, no insulation and a heating system which cannot be tailored to different rooms has made all this challenging.
It is yet another consideration for the school’s dynamic principal, Orla Brickenden.
“It can be chilly, especially having to leave doors open,” she tells The Mayo News. “Our heating system just works on the one setting for the whole school so you might have children in one classroom saying it is too hot and in another saying it is too cold.
“Some kids will put on jumpers, maybe coats too and some kids are wearing lycra base layers to stay warm,” she added.  
Consider that as far back as 2010, this building was condemned by a Department of Education Whole School Evaluation as not fit for school purposes and you can imagine the extra challenges that Covid-19 has brought.
We are speaking in the staffroom which also doubles as the principal’s office, a learning support room and a storeroom. Space is tight throughout the school.
In order to access the staffroom, you have to walk through the middle classroom. There’s no hallway in the school.
“It is very congested,” Orla Brickenden admits. “It was a long way from ideal before Covid and is worse now. We’ve staggered break times so there is not as much congregating. We sub-divide it to keep kids apart but our playground is small to begin with.
“The major issue throughout the school is space. The classrooms are too small and having to put children into pods in small classrooms is very difficult.
“We are so used to living on top of each other than when Covid came, we realised how much mixing is going on because of the nature of the building and we adapted as best we could.”
In total, there are 61 children in the school, three classroom teachers, including a teaching principal, a learning support teacher and two Special Needs Assistants.
The school would love to grow to a four teacher school but that’s not possible in their current home.

Department communication
Orla Brickenden, like principals and teachers the length and breadth of the country, has had to cope with their normal roles and add in Covid concerns on top of that. The ever changing nature of directives have been a challenge, not least in terms of how the information has been relayed.
“The communication from the Department has not been good. We find out on the way to school on the news what the latest directives are,” she said.
Poor communication was readily apparent in recent weeks when some children from third class up were told to wear masks with barely 12 hours notice. What’s more, principals and teachers were told to enforce it.
It was a step too far for Orla Brickenden.  
“Most parents were very understanding and supportive when it came to masks.
“The initial directive that schools were not to allow entry for children not wearing masks was totally unacceptable. No principal is a gatekeeper to their school. We muse use common sense and every child has a right to come to school.
“One or two parents have concerns about mask wearing, particularly in relation to special needs, and that is something we respect.”
Moving forward, she suggests all communication should come directly from the Department of Education – they had been receiving some directly from Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan – while Covid school supports need to be better.
“The helpline for principals needs to be manned and far more responsive. If you are a teaching principal like I am, you simply do not have time to be waiting the length you are often left waiting. Contact tracing would help and that should be brought back.
“One positive is that teaching principals now get one release day a week. I would have been getting 13 or 14 per year before Covid but that allowance has been increased to one per week because of Covid.”
Despite all the challenges with Covid, particularly because of their old building, Holy Trinity have had zero Covid in their school.
“There has been a very united response by parents, teachers and children,” said Ms Brickenden.