FOLLOWING REGULATIONS Ventilation in classrooms is now a part of life for the likes of Claremorris Boys National School principal Mark Loftus. Pic: John Corless
THE cold weather is being felt acutely in many Irish schools. Since being given the all-clear to return after the Christmas break, maintaining the balance between good ventilation and the minimum legal temperature has proved extremely challenging.
In the past two weeks, many teachers took to social media to highlight the alarmingly low temperatures that students and staff have had to endure. Some schools reported temperatures as low as eight degrees Celsius, significantly below the minimum of 16 degrees set out for schools in the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Regulations.
One secondary school in Dublin even had to send students home due to the unbearable cold.
On Friday, The Mayo News visited Claremorris Boys NS to see how it is coping with the challenge of keeping Covid out while educating the children, keeping them warm and keeping their spirits up.
“I think they [the pupils] are still finding it very tough,” school principal Mark Loftus tells The Mayo News.
Situated in the heart of the Claremorris, the school is attended by 112 children and staffed by five permanent teachers, three support teachers and one full-time SNA.
The school made local and national headlines back in December 2020 when just seven boys turned up following a Covid outbreak.
Since then, the challenges have persisted.
The removal of contact tracing in October as cases spiked in five to 12-year-olds put paid to the ‘schools are safe’ narrative pushed by both Nphet and government.
Then followed the introduction of mandatory mask wearing for Third to Sixth Class students, the rollout of which was described in these pages as ‘blunt’ and ‘quite aggressive’ by Mayo-Sligo INTO representative Vincent Duffy.
The sheer scale of infections with the Omicron variant over the Christmas led some to call for the reopening of schools to be paused.
Now that the schools are fully open again, high staff and student absenteeism has been seen all over the country.
Mark Loftus says attendance in his school has been about 75 percent – and he believes other schools have experienced a similar rate.
Claremorris Boys NS is rising to the challenge and continuing to operate under the difficult circumstances. It is sending work home absent pupils to keep them in the education loop. While substitute teachers have been ‘hard to come by’, the school has only been short-staffed on one day this year so far.
It is also striving to meet the challenge of ventilating classrooms while keeping them warm. While the weather and the number of students in the room are factors, Mr Loftus insists it is still ‘very much doable’.
Pupils are allowed don extra layers whenever they feel cold. “Obviously the more [pupils in the classroom] the higher the likelihood that the CO2 monitors will turn red,” Mr Loftus says.
“The maximum is 14,000 parts per million for your monitors. [The monitor’s indicators] start to vary in colour from green to orange to red. As soon they turn red, we have to open doors and windows and put on these special air filters,” he explains, pointing to the Hepa filter gently purring in his office.
“It’s circulating the air five times per hour within that space. They are in every room and they vary in size. The problem with them is they are very noisy, and it’s cool air they are blasting out as well.”
The Hepa filters alone do not adequately ventilate large spaces, meaning doors and windows do have to be left open.
“It’s cold, very cold at times,” Mr Loftus says.
Being with friends
WE are then brought to meet Mr Loftus’s fourth class boys, all masked up and in good humour, at 2.30pm on a Friday.
Despite the fire exit being wide open, along with a few of the windows, this seomra ranga is both comfortable and well aired.
The temperature is a surprisingly balmy 17.8 degrees, compared to outdoors, where it is eight degrees with barely a breath of wind.
Seated roughly six to a table with few jackets to be seen, the students are all ears when The Mayo News asks them what they like and dislike about school these days.
Immediately, the difficulties of mask wearing are highlighted as we strain slightly to hear some of the answers.
The most common response was muffled but unanimous; being with friends.
Predictably, the boys of fourth class don’t like wearing the masks. Another boy says the draft from the open door and windows occasionally sends a chill up his back.
As the class begin packing their books away as part of a staggered exit, we head down the corridor where Lisa Maguire is teaching fifth class.
With just the fire-exit door open, the classroom is warm while the CO2 monitor shines a healthy green.
Fifth class have less of a gripe with the masks and cold air, and are more disgruntled with the daily rigmarole of sums and spelling – a right of passage that existed long before Covid.
Much like fourth class, they say the best thing about school is being back among their peers.
MR Loftus commends their efforts in coping with the abnormal learning environment.
“With the staggered breaks, all of the students aren’t getting to see each other at the same time as they would’ve before. It’s the same with the staff. We don’t get to see each other,” he says.
“It is different, there’s no doubt about it. There’s times when they find it more challenging than others.
“I have to say they’ve been very good. They’ve been so resilient. They’ve managed to adapt to situations. They may not always agree with them, but they adapt.”
While the current environment is a challenging one, any negatives are likely to pale in comparison to the effects of school closures, which have lasted for over a year in some countries.
Mr Loftus says that masks, pods, staggered breaks and hand washing are likely to be part of the national school for the remainder of the year. He predicts that ‘eventually [Covid-19] will be at a level like the common cold, but that’s not the case yet’. “I’d say for the foreseeable future we’re probably likely to have most of this year affected and impacted as the last two,” he says. “Whatever happens after that, who knows?”