New season, new school year, new rules. This is the first weekend of the new lockdown and although the restrictions are severe, schools and creches remain open. On one side, the Government of Ireland and the NPHET ensure they are safe places. On the other side, the Teachers Union of Ireland has asked to not reopen schools after the midterm. Is a balance possible?
First of all, this is not a war. We already have enough to deal with and solidarity is the most powerful weapon, as we have learnt. Every little helps. Ireland’s streets are cold and empty but Irish citizens should warm their hearts and start taking this seriously. People are dying, this is not a simulation. This island has always been known for its caring, now we are known for being the first country to implement the second confinement.
We are all probably right in terms of what is best to do and what is worst about this situation. Nobody seems to know what is the correct thing to do, though. However, we are all trying our best, consistency is essential. Also, we now have time to settle our emotions down and support each other from home. So, let’s find a balance.
There are frontline workers, saving lives (physically and mentally). Because of this and the new restrictions, schools and teachers are in the spotlight. Should schools and creches remain open? Well, there’s a controversy. “The experts are saying that students are safer in school than they would be in the community”, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said. On the other hand, TUI shows concern over the safety of staff and pupils as well as frustration over testing and tracing delays.
In words of the Irish Times journalist Carl O’Brien, “not so long ago there were siren voices warning that schools could become vectors of coronavirus infection when they reopened. But, two months on, the latest official data paints an encouraging picture: schools are significantly safer places than the wider community”. Despite this, the TUI considers it necessary for schools to remain closed after the midterm since there is much to improve.
With this in mind, we talked to people working in the frontline: three young but experienced teachers based in Dublin. Would you like to know how they are dealing with this situation? Keep reading!
Conor, a Graphic Designer and Technology teacher
Our first interviewee is Conor, a resident of Ireland his whole life. In 2017, having finished his undergraduate degree in Materials and Engineering Technology Teaching, he moved to London. This way, he spent the next two years there to start his teaching career. Before moving abroad, he was always eager to explore new people and cultures as he felt this would benefit his career choice. In his own words, “Initial inspiration to become a teacher happened during school when my love for the subjects that I now teach grew exponentially. Having pursued this career in teaching, I am forever learning new information”.
At the moment, he is teaching Graphic Design and Technology in a secondary school in Dublin. Due to the situation and because his subject includes a 50% practical work focus, working from home does not really work. However, he applauds the use of Google Classroom: “this time, I have students equipped with using Google Classroom in a more beneficial and efficient way; it has allowed us to keep students up to date with work at home if they are taking precautionary measures against spreading a virus”, he says.
Working with Covid-19 has included some changes in his routine. “Within a day to day lesson for me, I have implemented many precautions to try and reduce the spread of COVID amongst the students and staff. The main focus for me is on wearing masks, sanitizing hands regularly, and avoiding touching the face”, Conor tells me.
Because his subject area involves practical work, they include the use of hand tools. Nevertheless, he is confident that his priority as a teacher is to keep students safe, even more now that this priority has become expounded by the virus. “I do 3 routine class intervals where students have the option to wash or sanitize their hands. The tools they now use for completing any work are wiped down immediately with anti-bacterial wipes, and they are sprayed with disinfectant at the end of each school day”
Talking about if schools should remain open after the midterm, he agrees: “We are told schools are not the main transmitter of the virus. I feel that as long as we can see some form of improvement to the number of daily cases in the coming weeks, then schools should remain open. Also, the level of autonomy for secondary, and primary students to learn at home is just not prevalent enough to justify closing second level schools”.
On the other hand, he continues: “I am happy to return to school once there is some correlation between level 5 restrictions and school restrictions. Right now there is no change to the measures taken in schools for the prevention of the virus. I would be a lot happier to see certain allocations towards students wiping desks and helping to disinfect rooms”.
Although he admires the school management in all this, he is not that sure about Government restrictions. “It is very hard to imagine that schools are not carrying this virus from one household to another through the day to day interactions – which kind of annoys me because it’s the household transmission that is causing a lot of cases”, he confesses.
Personally, as a journalist and mostly a human, it made me think about how often they are tested. What a surprise when Conor told me that he has not got tested yet for Covid-19: “We are only tested if there are symptoms developed. There is no set rule in play that makes regular testing mandatory for teachers”
On the bright side, this situation is leading to good results. Surprisingly, the students are more focused now. Maybe, it is because of what Conor thinks: “We hit the ground running once they came back in September and I feel this has led to students becoming engrossed within the work set out for them. Perhaps, this has derailed any anxious thoughts before returning and has further elevated their attention as a result”.
As an alternative to field trips, they are implementing other ideas: “Luckily on our school grounds we have the availability of a GAA grounds so we can bring the students out for mask breaks, and even a walk around the pitch for 10 minutes if we feel the need to do so. This has benefitted in an immeasurable amount of ways, and thankfully we can keep doing this as long as the weather remains dry”.
He concludes that “so ultimately a lot has changed for me as a teacher, nonetheless, I am happy to continue this work if it means educating the students in my school”. And we do not doubt it, Conor!
Aurora, a preschool teacher
Aurora is a Spanish teacher based in Dublin. She’s been teaching kids between 3 and 5 years old for four years now and she could not be happier. She feels at home here and as a Spanish person, so do I!
When I asked how she became a teacher, she responded: “I had one of the best preschool teachers to guide me and show me how much love you can give to your students. So ever since I just loved the idea of teaching small kids, guiding them through the most important years of their lives, teaching them how to read or write and learning with them every single day”.
Despite the current situation, she thinks that it is very important for children to go to school: “They need it, as well as their parents need them to be at the school to be able to go to work or work from home.They need to be in contact with other children, they need their teachers, activities, outdoor activities and learn through play. We can’t deliver the knowledge they need online. However, during the first lockdown, we made videos for the kids to recreate at home with science experiments, PE lessons, crafts…”
On the other hand, she states the Government restrictions are not enough: “If we need to go back into a full lockdown again, we can’t go to restaurants and we can’t even meet with friends or family, is it ok for teachers to mix with 20 or more kids every single day for hours without any kind of protection, just cleaning procedures?”
And that’s the thing, she confesses it is very difficult, almost impossible, she would say, to social distance when you are in a room with 20 children around 4 years old and other two adults. This way and even though the school made them attend a course about Covid-19 and how to proceed in their workplace, she admits it is very difficult to work, keeping in mind you shouldn’t be too close to a child or that they shouldn’t be too close to each other.
Like Conor, she concludes saying that she doesn’t see that the restrictions are that coherent: “Still, children can’t mix with other classrooms in case someone gets sick, but they mix outside. They go to the park with other children or they see their families, which they need, but then those restrictions don’t make sense anymore or keep children and teachers safe”.
Anonymous, an English teacher in secondary school
This secondary school English teacher prefers to remain anonymous. She graduated in 2018 and has been working since in a secondary school in Dublin. She defines teaching as conceptual, abstract, and creative.
“Teaching styles have been changed because of the current times, going from basic 21st-century teaching and learning styles to advanced 21st-century teaching and learning styles”, she says. The teacher works in an iPad school, so she declares that it was very quickly able to adapt to new health and safety guidelines in terms of Covid-19.
Nevertheless, she gives a detailed description of how things have changed at her school: “Management has really supported all staff and ensured that all staff members and students feel safe at all times. Everyone, apart from a small number of exceptions, is required to wear a mask or a visor in the school building and in the field area, where a 2 metres distance cannot be maintained. Hand sanitisers have been put in each classroom, toilets and entrances. Each classroom has been equipped with anti-bacterial spray and paper to allow students to sanitise their areas every time they leave the classroom. All the windows remain open during the school day to allow for ventilation”.
Due to the current circumstances, they have gone from group work to individual work, from a vast array of extracurricular activities to limited activities. She admits teaching in the classroom has become difficult: “Although we have the advantage of using iPads, by which students can access all learning material, there are a few disadvantages. As teachers, we are unable to provide as much support as we used to individual students. We are unable to walk around the classroom and ensure all students are on task and aid them, especially students who are particularly shy and reserved. However, I have seen that students’ academic performance remains the same and for some, it has increased”.
Talking about lockdown and people that think schools should close, she doesn’t agree: “Personally, I don’t think it’s a good decision as I feel students will fall behind and staying at home will really affect their health and mental well-being”.
Although she supports technology, this teacher doesn’t think teaching online is that good: “ It is not very feasible or practical. It’s difficult for students to engage in online learning. Not many would contribute and participate and that is the harsh truth if you will. Their academic performance would decrease significantly”.
“All we can do is hope that we return to “normal” teaching routines very soon, normal routines where students can participate in any kind of activity, teachers can teach freely, students can be awarded school trips and everyone can enjoy their time in the school environment without having to worry about maintaining distances and wearing masks”, she concludes.
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