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The big class divide

Getting ready to reopen schools in September

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Working hard behind the scenes: Kieran O’Toole the principal of Scoil Eoin NS in Tralee, Co. Kerry

Working hard behind the scenes: Kieran O’Toole the principal of Scoil Eoin NS in Tralee, Co. Kerry

Working hard behind the scenes: Kieran O’Toole the principal of Scoil Eoin NS in Tralee, Co. Kerry

As the nation's parents gratefully usher their children out the front door and into the classroom next month the country's pupils will find a very different set of school rules.

After a six-month hiatus, children will be metaphorically welcomed back with open arms but it will be a sanitised school environment featuring colour-coded corridors, strict social distancing and classroom pods.

Principals across the country have been told to ease children back into student life with wellbeing prioritised over academic catch-up.

Hartstown Community School in Clonsilla had a starring role in Normal People - but when its real-life pupils return to its corridors next month it will be a case of a whole new type of normal.

The principal Lucia Ryan is excited by the prospect of the return of adolescents to the school halls showcased to millions in Sally Rooney's coming-of-age series.

"I cannot wait to see them. I used to stand at the front gate watching them all come in every morning and I'll never take it for granted again.

"Even if it is behind the mask, even if it is one metre or two metres apart, I'll be just happy to see some normal interaction."

Masks

She believes masks must be mandatory for pupils at schools as they will struggle to implement one-metre social distancing without face masks for both pupils and teachers.

"No matter what configuration of desks we have, the one-metre doesn't work for a lot of our classrooms.

"If it isn't made mandatory to wear masks we're quite concerned about health and safety for students and teachers and parents as well."

A colour-coded plan on different school entrances and exits for every school year aims to minimise the mixing of classes through the school corridors during the day as some hallways are quite narrow.

"We have 1,200 students passing through those corridors," she said.

The school is hoping to send out a survey to parents before the re-opening to get a picture of how families have been affected by the pandemic.

Sanitiser and cleaning kits will be in every classroom and inside and outside each bathroom.

But behind the sterile atmosphere of the post-Covid school environment, the biggest priority is the children's well-being.

"When we go back into school, we're starting from scratch again and basing everything about well-being with students and student care."

Meanwhile, Hartstown pupils got a huge boost from the virtual graduation earlier in the summer when a special message from actor Paul Mescal popped up on screen. She said: "The teachers in our school pulled out all the stops in getting a graduation video for them with lots of lovely messages from people that they would recognise and all their teachers as well. It was a really positive moment."

The principal is determined to have more positive moments for the children when they return.

"We put up a whole wall of flags to represent every kid in the school, the number is up around the 30s or 40s, it's hugely diverse.

"We've renovated the gym. We're trying to spark their interest and their creativity. I'm in contact with a lot of principals and everyone is working extremely hard to get this right for the kids and the staff.

"It's all worth it to get the kids back."

Kerryman Terry O'Brien, father to 13-year-old twins Millie and Mark, is nervous about the upcoming school term but he believes it is time for children to return to some normality.

"Obviously you would be nervous for the (children) but I would be more nervous for their mental health than the virus for the kids. I'm a wheelchair user myself, I'm one of these people who are vulnerable but at this stage unless we lock ourselves away forever, we have to get on with it."

In his other role as Mayor of Tralee, the Labour councillor sees the huge responsibility placed on the shoulders of schools in these uncertain times but he believes the country has to move forward.

"We must get some kind of normality back for the children. I'm actually enthusiastic for my kids to go back to school."

The principal of Scoil Eoin, Tralee's largest primary school, posted a reassuring virtual tour of the classrooms on YouTube during the holidays to parents nervous about sending children back.

Kieran O'Toole said preparations for the return of their 650 pupils began back in June with the teachers packing away books from March.

"All the teachers came in in mid-June and the kids' books were still on their desks, nothing was touched - it was like the end of the world nearly," he said ruefully.

Over the past two months, the school has gone through an entire deep clean and makeover.

"We've arranged the furniture into pods for the juniors up to second class - they are in groups of four. Then there is one-metre distance for the rest of the school and zoned-off teaching areas.

"With third and fourth class, we've had to move six to eight children out of every class and create two new classrooms in our assembly hall

"We put in the orders for sanitisers. It's a massive undertaking. We have been going non-stop since June 18 and we'll just be ready for September."

The four playgrounds will be broken into 14 smaller space and there will be staggered break times during the day to ensure classes don't mix.

Staff will be there in the morning to greet first-time pupils or students anxious about attending school.

"One or two parents are anxious about the guidelines of dropping the children and running so we've made an area of about 20 feet inside the gates where parents can come in and we will have staff members waiting to collect the children.

"Two of our staff are set aside next year for children who might have anxiety and who will do little workshops with them to get them back in."

But the principal believes children adjust quickly to new routines.

"There are always rules associated with the school and children just accept them."

His biggest worry is about accessing substitution teachers next year as they're expecting a higher number of teachers will be out with any sign of colds or coughs.

The children can't be placed in another classroom due to social distancing.

"We would have struggled ordinarily getting subs after November.

"If we can't manage something, you'd have to ring parents and say the children will have to be collected again which is another nightmare again for parents."

And he said parents will have to be vigilant about sticking to the rules about keeping children at home if they show any sign of illness.

"Next year now if a child got a cough in a room and we had to ring to send them home, we would have to evacuate the whole classroom while the room is cleaned and sterilised which could take up to an hour or an hour and half.

"We have no spare classroom so those children could be out in the playground for an hour and half in the cold of the winter while we're waiting for the room to be ready.

"Really everyone has to take it seriously and be responsible."