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Class act - kids are alright as principals prep for reopening

  • Pupils to get no homework for first few weeks as 'gesture'

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St Patrick’s SNS principal Michelle Keane (right) with secretary Natasza Barry

St Patrick’s SNS principal Michelle Keane (right) with secretary Natasza Barry

St Patrick’s SNS principal Michelle Keane (right) with secretary Natasza Barry

In the seaside town of Skerries, one of the most difficult returns to school comes with a silver lining for pupils and their families - no one will be given homework for the first few weeks of term.

"It is a well-being gesture for the community," said one principal.

After months of enforced closure due to Covid-19, the town's six mainstream primary schools and one second-level school are busily preparing for more than 3,000 pupils to come through their doors again.

With only a couple of weeks to go, school principals in Skerries are leading military-style operations to ensure a safe return for all.

For Michelle Keane, principal of St Patrick's Senior National School (SNS), it means being armed with a metre stick, ever ready to measure out space and ensure that safe distances are created.

Infection

"My metre stick is my new best friend" she says.

The stick is essential as she faces the challenge of accommodating her 350 pupils and staff safely in the building, taking account of the advice on maintaining minimum distancing to reduce the risk of infection spread.

Skerries principals have also put a lot of thought into what happens when the kids go home. That is why all the schools have decided that, for a number of weeks at the start of term , none of their teachers will give homework.

Ms Keane said not giving homework in the early weeks will "allow for re-engagement and re-connectivity".

The cooperation between the schools in the town started early. It made sense, says Ms Keane "because we have pupils from the same families or some of the same families."

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Holmpatrick NS deputy principal Kate Boland (left) and Deirdre MacLean, principal

Holmpatrick NS deputy principal Kate Boland (left) and Deirdre MacLean, principal

Holmpatrick NS deputy principal Kate Boland (left) and Deirdre MacLean, principal

As reopening looms, that structure is proving a valuable mechanism. Principals met this week to share ideas and coordinate plans. But the schools also face their own individual challenges.

With less than two weeks to go to the reopening in St Patrick's SNS, Ms Keane is working through the logistics.

As classroom measuring got underway to figure out how to fit pupils and staff safely, principals realised it wasn't as simple as looking at the overall dimensions - classroom space given to toilets had to be discounted from the calculations.

"We couldn't have kids in those areas; we can only take account of usable space. We needed to be 100pc certain that all the floor space we would occupy was appropriate and sufficient."

She said it was "highly likely that will have to remove at least two pieces of furniture from every classroom. These are presses with items such as art work and extra books."

The school is giving over two resource teaching rooms to create an isolation space for any suspected Covid-19 cases.

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Michelle Keane

Michelle Keane

Michelle Keane

The knock-on to that is the general purposes room being reconfigured with a partition, to create workstations for special educational needs teachers.

At the 80-pupil, four-teacher Holmpatrick NS, principal Deirdre MacLean says the school building is old and very limited on space. She has the added complication of all her classes being mixed years.

"Some of our classrooms are smaller than others and many are smaller than templates we have been given in the guidelines. We have removed all furniture from classrooms and in some of the smaller ones we have managed to fit the desks, at least one metre apart, but with some difficulty.

Bubbles

They have decided on staggering opening and finishing times, with each class arriving and leaving separately, spaced about 10 minutes apart. The staggering also extends to the morning and lunchtime breaks.

"We are trying to keep children within their own bubbles, so the junior and senior infants can't mix with pupils in first and second classes, and first and second can't mix with third and fourth etc.

Education Minister Norma Foley has announced more supports are being sent to schools next week, including posters on handwashing, face coverings and videos on cleaning and staff training.

To date almost €160m has been issued to schools to cover minor works, employ support to assist with reopening, cleaning costs and PPE costs.