Countdown for schools to re-open and welcome back their students

By Hayden Moore

THE COUNTDOWN is on for local schools to not only open their doors and welcome students back for a new term, but to adapt their buildings to ensure they are compliant with Covid-19 regulations.

After months of empty classrooms, school hallways, remote learning with online video conferencing, students will return at full capacity to their school buildings by the end of August/start of September.

Kingswood Community College 07 1

Kingswood Community College

A large document detailing a roadmap for the “full return to school” was revealed on July 27 by Minister for Education Norma Foley, along with a €376.8m financial package to support its implementation.

Among the stand-out points contained in the reopening schools plan is that face coverings are not a requirement for students or teachers at primary level but are encouraged, although optional, at secondary level.

“It’s very difficult to communicate, infants watch your face when you’re teaching them, it’s your facial expression,” says James Murray, Principal of St Kevin’s Boys National School.

“All good infant-teacher teaching depends on clear communication, so I don’t think my staff will be wearing masks.”

However, if a teacher feels uncomfortable not wearing a face covering they will have the option to wear a visor or if they are administering first aid, they will have to wear a visor at St Kevin’s BNS.

Although schools will be busy over the next few weeks preparing to reopen, both James Murray and Principal of Kingswood Community College, Deborah Dunne, welcomed the roadmap.

Within the government’s plan, an additional 1,080 teaching positions at secondary level at a cost of €53m was announced, 120 of which were guidance positions to support student well-being.

With 700 students in Kingswood CC, the school has an allocation of 17 hours for a career guidance position and for the forthcoming year has already used some of the regular teaching hours to bolster the guidance department with another 11 hours.

The school has a well-being programme that enables them to welcome in speakers for resilience talks as well as Pieta House, and is relieved to have additional official allocation.

“The fact that we will be getting official allocation for it now is a hugely welcome aspect of the return to school,” says Deborah Dunne, Kingswood principal. “Because there are so many different things going on in so many different children’s lives on a normal basis, you add in this pandemic and it just magnifies everything.

She added: “The amount of children who have been at home for the last five months . . . we know that we’re looking into a bigger need for our students well-being.”

Principal of St Kevin’s BNS, James Murray also spoke about a greater focus on children’s mental health.

“It’s fair to acknowledge that it has been stressful and there’s a little bit of stress left,” he told The Echo.

“Just know that your school is going to do the very, very best we can to mind you physically, emotionally when you come back to us in September.

“We’ll be absolutely doing our utmost to make sure you’re safe and you’re happy.”

While a lot of the finer details of the general schoolday is yet to be ironed out, with Mr Murray expecting it will remain largely the same, the arrival of students in the morning-time is a main concern.

“The first is that we’ll try spread the load so that all 350 children don’t arrive together.

“Second thing is we’ll be encouraging cycling and walking to school, as per circular, because cars tend to congregate and when parents get out of their cars it just leads to congestion and congestion is bad news as far as Covid is concerned.”

As Mr Murray goes on to point out, although children from junior infants to second class don’t need to social distance while third to sixth class pupils do, there are still requirements for pupils to wash or sanitise their hands on arrival to school and have each class operating in what will be called a “bubble”.

Within each class bubble, children will work together in smaller pods with one-metre separating each pod.

At secondary level, one-metre distancing will be a requirement between students.

If a child falls ill during the day, they will be taken to the school’s isolation area, while the guidance around testing a child is still being looked at by the National Public Health Emergency Team.

A sum of €52m has been announced for enhanced cleaning and hygiene measures.

An allocation of €75m for the preparation of buildings and classrooms is also included in the plan, including a boost for schools with special educational needs pupils.

In terms of the logistics of changing classroom layouts, installing hand sanitising stations and more, there has been a €4.2m financial aide for their implementation.

Also included was an allocation for schools to appoint a lead worker to handle and manage the risk of infection in the school.

To hear full interviews with Deborah Dunne and James Murray, see Local Voices 013 on echo.ie/podcasts

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