Christopher Rowley, principal, St Patrick’s College, is keen to see students and teachers return to classrooms safely.

Teachers ‘afraid’ but want to return to classrooms

It was back to home schooling this week for thousands of families all across County Cavan as students, once again, are being taught remotely amid public health concerns over Covid-19 cases.

Plans by the Government to bring back Leaving Cert students three days a week were scuppered last Thursday when the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI) directed their members not to return to the classroom.

A spokesperson said they did not have the “necessary assurances” that schools were safe places for students and teachers.

FORCA, the union representing Special Needs Assistants (SNAs) and other staff, had also warned that thousands of staff members would be unable to attend work on Monday of this week, due to childcare issues and public health concerns.

The Department of Education is expected to make an announcement shortly in relation to mock exams, oral exams and a plan for how an orderly return to school can take place in February.

Teachers are ‘afraid’

Principal of Loreto College, Angela McGarvey, insisted that teachers and students want to be in school but there was a very real fear of the risk of transmission of Covid-19.

“I don’t like the idea out there that teachers don’t want to be in school – they are actually afraid to be in. It is because of the health risks involved and the transmission rate is too great – that is why we are not in school,” said Ms McGarvey.

She explained remote teaching and learning will be in place for all Loreto students for the month of January.

“The Government have been very generous in their funding for devices and training and we are as up-skilled as we could be. Teachers and students have the experience now as well, but it is still not ideal,” said Ms McGarvey.

The Loreto principal feels strongly there should be a Leaving Certificate exams this year with shorter tests and more examination centres.

“It is possible to do that and that is where their energies should go. For example the two Leaving Cert English papers are three hours and 20 minutes. Surely you could have an exam within two hours and you could give greater choice in the examination paper. It is the quality of the answer at the end that matters.

“The examinations are onerous and very long and I think if greater choice was given to the student, you will emerge with the student achieving what they should achieve,” argued Ms McGarvey, who says a decision on this suggestion needs to be made as soon as possible to avoid uncertainty and stress.

In relation to mock exams, she explained they are not compulsory and are at the discretion of the school.

“The State Exams Commission and the Department advised us to use mocks marks for predicted grades last year. That is a decision we will take in the next week or two, following consultation with parents, students and teachers,” revealed Ms McGarvey.

“We have to evaluate whether exam preparation is more important than teaching and learning for the content of their courses. We have to make a decision on that matter,” she added.

Angela McGarvey said the calculated grades worked very well for the Junior Cert last year. “If it is managed correctly, the students are focussed on doing a little bit of work on a continuous basis.”

‘No time to plan’

The principal of St Bricin’s College in Belturbet meanwhile has said they had no issue with bringing in Leaving Cert students three days a week, but the notice given was too short.

“There was no time to plan for it and put a structure in place. We did not know how long we might have to maintain it. We have learned lessons from the previous lockdown and we need to review those and put them into action,” Mary Sheridan told the Celt.

She said students are in favour of predicted grades this year, as they missed out on tuition in class last year for the Leaving Cert.

Outlining how remote learning will operate this month, Ms Sheridan explained: “Live lessons will be 40 minutes, pre-recorded maybe less, as it may include time for the students to complete tasks during the video. For example the teacher may ask students to pause for 10 minutes to complete a task before the students start the lesson again.”

Ms Sheridan said the staff at St Bricin’s will continue to support students remotely at this difficult time.

‘Our set up is as good as you will get anywhere’ – St Pat’s

The principal of St Patrick’s College in Cavan Town, Chris Rowley, said teachers began live classes online yesterday morning (Tuesday).

“There will be a lot of good work done for two weeks – going on longer is a concern. We have everything set up in St Pat’s to present live classes online [via Microsoft Teams] but the practicalities of doing it is another thing, with young children at home where students and teachers are,” he said.

“Our students can view live classes on their phones and the Government has put in support for laptops. We have invested huge amounts since last March and our set up is as good as you will get anywhere,” added Mr Rowley.

He also expressed concern about how oral exams might operate towards the end of March, as well as practical exams for subjects like engineering.

Mr Rowley also voiced his worry at a safe return to school amid high Covid numbers. He observed the contact tracing system is not working at present and hospitals are under pressure.

“There is just too much nervousness and there would be a lot of teachers having problems with childcare,” said the principal.

No substitute to being in the classroom

Niall Lynch, the principal of Virginia College, said there is no substitute to being in the classroom, but if that is not possible, the next best thing is everyone learning online. There are 105 students doing the Leaving Certificate in Virginia College this year and there are nearly 40 staff teaching those students.

He said everyone had learned a lot about remote online learning from the first lockdown.

“This time around we are in a much better place to embrace it because we have been doing work online during the year, not in the expectation this would happen but in the event that, if it happened, we would be better able to carry on,” said Mr Lynch, who is also seeking urgent guidance on oral and practical exams.

“Most young people are coping well but uncertainty does not help. Hopefully, as the minister wants, we can get those young people back into the classrooms as soon as possible in a safe manner,” said the principal.

He too is in favour of the Leaving Cert exams taking place this year provided students can return to the classroom quickly. “The longer that they are not in front of their teachers makes the traditional Leaving Certificate more difficult,” said Mr Lynch.

“The time of the lockdown last year around the 30th March, the majority of Leaving Cert courses had been covered at that time, whereas January 2021, that is not the case. There is a portion of work that would have been intended to be completed in the next eight weeks,” he continued.

“We have been told that the Department are making changes to the Leaving Cert papers and there will be more choice on the papers this year,” added Mr Lynch.

Concerns for mental health of students

The principal of Colaiste Dún na Rí in Kingscourt agrees a quick return to the classroom is important for exam students.

“It is going to create a considerable amount of stress for students and teachers getting the exam material covered,” said Fergal Boyle.

The relatively new school does not have a Leaving Cert class this year but Mr Boyle points out that “a huge amount of the course material is covered in fifth year, which is currently the position in the college.”

In relation to the Junior Cert students, classroom based assessments (CBAs) still have to be completed, along with practical work in subjects like Engineering or Home Economics.

“Teachers can work remotely to help students practice the practical aspects of subjects at home but it is still not a complete substitute for working in the classroom,” said Mr Boyle.

He pointed out that some students could become disengaged from learning.

“Even when they are in school, you would have to work with them.

“The fact that they don’t physically have to come to school, some of them don’t engage,” said the principal.

Mr Boyle also expressed concern about the mental wellbeing of students given their lack of social interaction.

“The Department does need to look at providing additional counselling support for students. The capacity is not there in any school to deal with the level of mental health issues that are presenting,” he remarked.

“In some cases the students will self report their issues and, in other instances, teachers from knowing the students can tell they are struggling. In some cases parents contact us to let us know the situation,” added the principal.

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