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School principal: 'Pitting school staff against parents in a game of political football has not helped'

Wicklow principal Pádraig Murphy says some vulnerable children will need years of added support after this but it’s important to only open schools when safe to do so.

Pádraig Murphy

THIS PANDEMIC HAS taught people to adapt in ways they never would have before. As principal of a primary school with two special classes for children with Autism, I have seen first-hand how children, parents, teachers and SNAs have broadened their horizons and learned to cope with the unprecedented.

Zoom, Seesaw, Class Dojo, Google Classroom. Nobody could have predicted this. As a school, we have always focused on helping every child in our community to achieve their potential in whatever way we can.

Accessibility of education is paramount. We all learn differently.

The world of learning has changed dramatically since last March and it has become clear to all parties that remote learning is no substitute for in-school learning. Some students find it harder to learn in this way and others simply cannot.

Strength in a storm

To their great credit, children across Ireland have exhibited levels of resilience that most adults would be proud of between March and June 2020.

Despite this many children suffered through that period. Vulnerable children and those with additional needs suffered the most. 

All children missed out academically but it was clear to us as staff in September 2020 that certain children regressed socially and emotionally.

Plans were put in place to help these children and while we have seen progress it is possible that some children will need support for many years.

As a staff, we decided in September that as we re-opened our school in the midst of a pandemic, we had to do so in a way that minimised anxiety for the students.

Some children were terrified of leaving their parents in the mornings. Some were terrified of catching Covid in school and bringing it home. Hand sanitiser caused irritation for some children and others began to use it obsessively in a way that teachers feared was unhealthy.

Some parents did not feel safe returning their children to school and so we tried to accommodate remote learning also. As the days and weeks went on children, parents and staff all became more comfortable and school began to resemble “normal” again.

Managing the changes

When the rumours began to circulate that schools may have to close again at Halloween anxiety levels rose again. “Will we send the books home?” The feeling of the unknown seemed to cause more worry for everyone concerned than Covid itself.

Staff dreaded the thoughts of remote teaching and learning again. We discussed how some of the children in our care could not access remote learning as well as others.

I wrote to Education Minister Norma Foley requesting that she consider allowing school staff access to schools, if we were indeed entering into Lockdown 2.0, and also that special classes remain open. I did not receive a response but luckily schools did not close and we successfully continued with in-school learning until the end of Term 1.

There were no “school-related transmissions” of Covid-19 in our school in Term 1. That’s the official line. Some of our students did test positive though. Personally, I think that the vigilance of parents and guardians in keeping their children home in line with public health measures kept our school a safe place.

In one situation an asymptomatic parent was deemed a close contact and was sent for a test. She tested positive. Her children subsequently tested positive but had been in isolation and so there was no risk within the school.

If it wasn’t for the testing of close contacts in this instance we can be confident that there would have been a considerably higher risk to the school.

December. “Will we send the books home?” Déjà vu. The rumours began to circulate again before Christmas. We decided, again, not to send the books home as we didn’t want to cause unnecessary panic or anxiety.

A huge challenge

This time it’s different. At the time of writing, there are 23 ICU beds available across the country. Testing of close contacts has stopped. There are three new strains (that we know of) in the country.

We know that these new strains are more easily transmitted and contracted. We know very little else about these strains, unfortunately.

We are reminded daily by public health officials of the severity of the situation we find ourselves in. People are very worried. Pitting school staff against parents in a game of political football does not help.

Over the last week, we have seen politicians and activist groups condemn teachers and SNAs for questioning the safety of their workplace. Politicians have been causing mass confusion by announcing decisions and outcomes before coming to an agreement with or even consulting the parties involved.

Teachers and SNAs who work with children in special classes often cannot rely on the child understanding or abiding by the guidelines. Intimate care needs do not allow for social distancing.

Teachers and SNAs around the country want to get back to school just as much as children. We know how important it is. We also want to feel safe in our workplace knowing that while there are no zero-risk environments, the risk to the children in our care, our colleagues and our families is at an acceptably low level.

Nobody is suggesting that schools remain closed forever, just until it is safe to reopen. Dr Mike Ryan from the WHO stated in July that “the best and safest way to reopen schools is in the context of low community transmission.”

Testing and tracing of close contacts need to resume before schools reopen safely. Clarity needs to be given on whether the new strains pose any risk to vulnerable staff members. Minister Foley and Minister Josepha Madigan need to work alongside school staff and activist groups and not against.

We know that there are children who cannot engage effectively with remote learning. We know that they will suffer if schools remain closed. Let’s come up with a comprehensive plan to drive down community transmissions so that schools can reopen safely and as soon as possible.

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Let’s make additional resources available to schools when we do reopen so that these children can be a priority.

Let’s increase services such as psychology, occupational therapy and speech and language when it is safe to do so. Let’s work together.

Pádraig Murphy is principal at Scoil Chaoimhín Naofa in Glendalough, County Wicklow.

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