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Dublin: 12 °C Wednesday 8 July, 2020

Opinion: 'UK's was an economic response to a health emergency' - a school principal from Northern Ireland

Declan Murray runs a boy’s secondary school in the North and says this week was beyond challenging.

Declan Murray

THE PAST WEEK has been the most testing of my career so far and perhaps unnecessarily so.

The decision to close schools in the Republic of Ireland on 12 March brought clarity to its citizens and addressed a growing worry brought about by the spread of the coronavirus.

This decision signalled the beginning of our troubles. Parents looked across the border and could see leadership, so they followed it. They phoned in almost as soon as the announcement was made and began withdrawing their children from school. Immediately we began planning for school closures in the North.

On Friday attendance levels dropped as more parents decided to keep their sons away from school. We awaited the message that was being delivered across Europe, close the schools.

The first message from the Minister for Education did not arrive until Friday at 6 pm, and the message was that schools would stay open.

If Brexit had us reimagining the border that had always been there but had faded since the Good Friday Agreement, the different responses to the coronavirus brought the border into sharp and frightening focus. One virus, one island, young people and teachers with identical needs but two very opposite responses.

Social media filling the void

We were told that schools would definitely be closing sometime in the future but we were given no idea as to when. In the absence of the leadership that was being shown across Europe, school leaders and teachers filled the void.

WhatsApp groups were created, meetings were arranged and ideas as to how to plan for the inevitable yet uncertain closure were shared. Leo Varadkar said in his St Patrick’s Day address that he was looking to see “what’s happening around the world and will learn from the experience of other countries”, some of us looked to the Republic to see how remote learning was being carried out.

We observed what apps, YouTube resources and websites were being used and copied them. By Monday it was clear that our pupils should not be in crowded places, play organised sport, go to their place of worship, take unnecessary journeys, their parents should work from home if possible but our school should open as normal on Wednesday.

The message from London

It appeared as if pupils and staff were being used as a human firewall against the virus so that their parents could continue to work. It seemed to be an economic response to a health emergency.

The decision was taken to close our school to pupils for the rest of the week. The vast majority of schools in the Newry area took the same decision. Some may put this down to Newry being a border area but this pattern was repeated across the jurisdiction.

On Wednesday morning we got ready for a staff briefing. We arranged the Assembly Hall using government advice on social distancing to protect the wellbeing of staff.

They were to sit two metres apart and the meeting would last no more than 15 minutes. Government advice was also to open the school as normal, with hundreds of pupils in a school built in 1958, with corridors not much wider than the minimum space between our staff. The ridiculousness of the situation was obvious.

Later that day UK Education Minister Peter Weir appeared before the education committee and repeated that schools would not close.

As the day progressed it became clear that this decision would be reversed, the feeling was one of relief and the realisation dawned that we might not be returning to school until August.

Staff said goodbye unsure as to when we would be returning, no hugs, no handshakes and no end of year celebrations. Just a strange feeling that we will not get the chance to say goodbye and good luck to our students. Will we ever see our final year students in the school blazer again?

Much to worry about

We are left with plenty of unknowns, which I’m sure is the case for all teachers throughout the north and south:

  • How will exams results be awarded?
  • Will the already stressful transition from primary to post-primary education be heightened?
  • How do we create a timetable for next year?
  • Will final year pupils be allowed to repeat?
  • And most importantly how do we deal with pupils who can no longer rely on the one hot meal they get every school day, how will pupils get by without the pastoral care provided by schools and friends who are in isolation should a loved one pass away?
  • What will the impact of massive job losses be on families who are already on the breadline?

What we do know is that in the absence of leadership people will come together to make their own decisions and that events on the other side of the border have a massive impact on life here.

Declan Murray is the Principal of St Joseph’s Boys’ High School in Newry. An 11-16 secondary school for boys.

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