The human connection is now the highlight of every day

Teachers at St. Joseph’s Girls National School in Clonakilty share some of the highs and lows of ‘school in Covid times’

How has Covid impacted on the way you teach now?

We have incorporated some online homework once a week since we returned to school – for example the children must upload one piece of homework onto Seesaw and the teachers then correct this online. We decided that this app was the best and most child-friendly platform to use for online learning and teaching in our school. The children have been given the opportunity to engage with Seesaw and to become more familiar with it in case we have another lockdown in the future. Also we have hosted some Zoom calls to the classrooms, as our whole school assemblies are not possible with new restrictions. These have proved a great success and have helped to keep all the rooms connected.

What challenges have your school and teachers overcome to create a safe learning environment for staff and children?

One of the main challenges has been the wearing of masks or visors while teaching. Teachers have found that the strain on their voices was immense when trying to communicate to the children from behind a visor… our solution was to invest in voice amplifiers for each class teacher and this has worked very well.

The issue of social distancing/pods/bubbles is ongoing and we have to review how our protocols are working regularly. Our building is challenging in that we don’t have an exit door out of each classroom unlike other more modern builds, but by putting a lot of thought behind how we were all going to return safely, we have overcome this obstacle.

After the first week the pupils knew exactly what entrance to come into school and which stairwell to use to access their classrooms safely. So far so good!

Just like every other school in the country we had to put a lot of safety measures in place – hand sanitisers/floor stickers/signs in the bathroom and so on and we also had to stagger our break and lunch times. With careful planning all of this is now in place and working well.

Does IT now have a far greater role to play in the classroom, tell us about this?

Part of our work here in St Joseph’s is to ensure that if we had to revert to online learning again because of a lockdown, we would be prepared. Because of this, practicing IT skills and using SeeSaw regularly (this is the online learning platform that we have selected for every class in the school) is vital. We try to ensure that the children have something to submit to their teacher on SeeSaw at least weekly. That way both parents and children are familiar with what is involved. Should another lockdown happen we would hope that it would be less stressful for both staff and families because of this preparation.

In what way have your teaching practices changed to fit in with social distancing in the classroom?

Less group work that involves movement, for example station teaching. Pods must stay together while in the classroom and each pod is spaced one metre apart.

Careful handling of equipment – cleaning and put in quarantine before any other class or group uses the equipment

Not as many teachers entering other classrooms unless necessary, not as much co-teaching as before

Is it very challenging to teach while wearing a mask?

We have headset microphones and speakers to help us project our voices and this has been a huge help while wearing a mask teaching.

How has life in the classroom changed post Covid?

Life in the classroom is different without doubt. The phrase ‘sharing is caring’ has gone out the window because the children literally cannot share with each other. They cannot share a pen or a ruler as before. Hands are sanitised entering and leaving the classroom as well as before and after eating, Library books that have been chosen and read have then got to be put into a quarantine box until they are safe to put back on the shelves. Added to that we have teachers wearing masks/visors and voice amplifiers! Every teacher’s desk has a screen and windows are flying open all day every day. Break and lunch times are staggered and in the yard where previously children had played happily together, they are now cordoned off into bubbles that cannot interact with each other. Yes life in the classroom has changed.

How have the children reacted and adapted to these changes?

While life in the classroom has changed for everyone some things stay the same. The children’s positive attitude and resilience is a testament to how we sometimes underestimate their ability to adapt. They have taken on the challenge of ‘school in Covid times’ and have been remarkably resilient. They are happy to be back as are all of us teachers. From the day we opened our gates in September, they have been fantastic, following the new protocols without a word of complaint and making our lives so much better with their smiles and fun. They keep us going and show us how to change with the times. If small children can do it, so can us adults!

Unanimously on staff we are delighted to see the children back in the school. We welcomed them back with open arms (figuratively speaking of course!) and they have responded so positively to all the changes making our jobs so much easier.

In your opinion, what is most important, the children’s emotional wellbeing or catching up with the curriculum?

For our staff here in St Joseph’s, wellbeing has always been at the centre of everything we do and this continues today. The wellbeing of the children and to an extent how this reflects on their families is our focus. The learning or ‘catching up’ will happen and has happened but the children’s wellbeing is far more elusive. You can measure how many math concepts a child learns but trying to measure how lockdown has impacted on their sense of security/confidence and wellbeing is not so easy. It is a big part of our job in the current school climate to create a positive, welcoming environment with anxiety kept to a minimum

Is the school running any classes in regards to emotional wellbeing?

We have our SPHE programmes running this year as usual which includes the Weaving Wellbeing programme in all classes. We also have our ‘mindful moment’ during the week when the Principal plays a mindful meditation for a few minutes over the PA system. All pupils and teachers stop when they hear the ‘gong’ and take time to breathe and follow the meditation. For the month of November we hope to do ‘Wellbeing Wednesday’, which will include something that everyone will look forward to (it’s a surprise so we can’t say yet!)

What will the learning focus be on for the next few months?

As the Department of Education and Skills so fondly repeats ‘slowing down to catch up’. Besides our SPHE programmes, we will be focusing on bridging the gaps that have arisen since lockdown, as well as moving ahead with the curriculum when we are sure that the children are ready.

Will there still be standarised assessments and how will this work if some kids are further behind others as a result of lockdown?

We don’t envisage having standardised assessments this side of Christmas. We usually do our testing in May and so hopefully this will be our plan this year as well.

What have been the highlights of returning to school?

The highlights have been firstly meeting the children at the gate that first morning and seeing their enthusiasm as well as meeting all the staff again. I suppose when it comes down to it; it’s the human connection that school gives us with parents, teachers and children that we missed so much during lockdown and is now the highlight of every day.

What the kids have to say:

 “It is difficult being back at school, we must keep our distance, we have pods and bubbles and must sanitise a lot, but we are getting used to it.”
Rose O’ Donoghue

“I thought when we were back at school, it was really nice being around people again instead of on Zoom. I really enjoyed seeing all my friends.” Fifi Aherne-Bleakley

“I was scared at first but now being back is much better, I much prefer the real life social interaction.” Erin Cahalane

“I feel before we took a lot for granted, it’s really good now coming into school and seeing all my friends; we must be careful but all the procedures are working really well.”
Roisín Cook

WCP Staff

WCP Staff Writer

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