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Principals grapple with schools reopening conundrum

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'A LOT OF WORK TO BE DONE' Ballinrobe Community School Principal, Willie Culkeen. Pic: Trish Forde

Staffing and building issues to the fore for Mayo schools

Oisín McGovern

SOURCING extra buildings in order to ensure physical distancing and recruiting extra staff are just some of the challenges facing secondary schools across the county if they are to reopen successfully next month.
According to William Culkeen, who is Principal of Ballinrobe Community School, schools that are already struggling with capacity will find it even more difficult to comply with the regulations for the reopening of schools.
Speaking to the The Mayo News yesterday evening (Monday), Mr Culkeen said: “It’s a very short timeframe, but trying to recruit teachers is going to be an issue. In Ballinrobe we’re virtually at capacity as it is. Our numbers are going up by about 25 students this year. We’re working off a few pre-fabs at the moment so our own campus is at maximum. We’re waiting approval for an extension so we’re going to have to try and look at getting other accommodations around the town.”
Yesterday, Minister for Education Norma Foley announced that the government would provide 1,000 extra teachers to schools in order to reduce class size to facilitate physical distancing.
Culkeen said that transitioning back into a more crowded environment will be a source of anxiety for parents and students.
“I think parents will have a lot of concerns for students, especially students with underlying health issues,” he said.
“You’ve a lot of students now that have basically been at home cocooning from Covid-19 since March 13. Now all of a sudden they’re going to be back into an environment where they’re sharing a room with ten or fifteen other children and during break time sharing areas with far higher number of students.
“Between staff and students they’re potentially mixing with 800 people. It’s a huge step up when you consider churches have only 50 people and GAA matches can only have 200 people in a wide open space.
“There’s going to be a lot of work to be done in order to reassure students that what we have is safe. We all know that’s extremely difficult, because with the nature of the virus we can’t guarantee anyone 100 percent safety.”

Extremely vague
Culkeen also said the amount of mixing between students in different classes was also a potential issue.
He explained: “In a secondary school, the definition of ‘classmates’ is extremely vague. If you have a student who might be doing honours English, pass Irish, pass Maths and different optional subjects, the only time they are in their core group is in subjects like Religion, PE, Pastoral Care and Career Guidance. That theory will work in Junior Cycle and primary school but students are going to have to be mixing for optional subjects [in Senior Cycle].”
Minister Norma Foley also announced €75 million funding for new building works to assist schools in altering classrooms and buildings.
Commenting on school buildings, Culkeen said: “One of the things I’d be thinking of doing is creating open-roofed shelters outside, because I think the more we can ventilate schools during the day the better. There’s going to be huge challenges, but we’ll work them out. The nature of schools is that we do make it work.
“When we get the final details of the document we will be sitting down with our board of management, looking at what details we need to put in place, and then communicating with parents about what they have to do.”
Mayo Fine Gael TD, Alan Dillon, who is a qualified teacher, said that it was essential that schools would reopen as soon as possible in line with public health guidelines.
Dillon told The Mayo News: “I think there’s huge appetite to get kids back into the classroom. What the past number of months have taught us is that it’s been very difficult for parents in the current climate. I think the kids themselves are looking forward to getting back.
“We also have to think about last year’s 5th years. They’re at a serious disadvantage as well, having only had a semester last year. There are big challenges ahead and we’ll be in constant contact with the department and teachers to make sure that they have the details they need.”