Internet quality is often weak in this remote area, so even school is being held on the airwaves, says Michael Moynihan
One of the country’s remotest schools has refused to let the coronavirus lockdown isolate its pupils, and is relying on local radio to maintain lines of communication.
Beara Community School draws from a sprawling hinterland in the westernmost corner of Cork, and the closure of the school left principal Pauline Hurley with a problem: Online learning is a godsend in areas with good connectivity, but what about a mountainous region with patchy internet signals?
The solution was the local community radio station.
“Bere Island Community Radio does a regular programme on Sundays,” says Ms Hurley.
“Usually, they bring in people for interviews, and so on, but when the restrictions began, we couldn’t have Mass on Bere Island, for instance, so the radio was used to broadcast the Mass.
“Then, the parents’ association, the student council in the school, and board of management got together, and we decided the radio might be a good way to maintain some kind of routine for the kids.”
As a result, the Beara school’s morning assembly now takes place on the airwaves.
“What happens is, every morning the community radio starts broadcasting at about 8.30,” says Ms Hurley.
“The kids send in some music requests, and then, at about five to nine, the usual assembly time, I come on.
“I give them any updates we have, any developments, maybe a thought for the day, and then we have parents, kids, teachers, all coming on with questions, and so forth.
“It’s very organised: If you have something you want to say, you have it written out, the radio station phones you, and you come on and say your piece.
“That way, if someone has an issue with a particular aspect of homework, we can address it straightaway; or with the state exams, which are a big issue for people, as you might imagine.
“If someone rings in and asks if they should pay the exam fees, then that’s probably something a lot of people are concerned about, so we can answer that according to the information we have.
“We’ve also had the student president and vice-president on lately, which was good, because we were able to get a teenage perspective on the situation.”
Ms Hurley hails the community spirit behind the initiative.
“We’re using the radio show as a way to keep the routine going, to get the kids to get up and get into the day,” she says. “They open their email accounts and see the work that’s been set out for the day, and then they can get started.
“I suppose, the essence of a community school is the community aspect, and the fact we have parents, teachers, and members of the community on every morning shows there’s a stronger link for the community than the normal assembly.
"There’s a huge spirit of volunteerism all over Beara — people are great to get involved in projects — and something like this shows students, parents, and teachers at their very best.”
And at their most ingenious. The variable quality of internet access in Beara makes the radio a lifeline.
“Some people have fabulous internet on the peninsula, but some don’t,” Ms Hurley says.
“I’ll be doing a class later and I know I won’t be able to use video and audio at the same time, because my internet connection wouldn’t be strong enough. I’ll just be using audio.
“It shows you there are people on the peninsula with very poor connectivity, and we have to bear all those people in mind, as well.
“We have students coming from Allihies, at the very tip of the peninsula, out towards Dursey, Castletownbere, out to Adrigole and beyond, and then to Eyeries, Urhan, Bere Island... The catchment area is huge. In reality, you’re going all the way to the Kerry border.”
The size of that constituency means a lot of those students are used to solitude.
“A lot of those students are living in houses or farms that are isolated from each other,” says Ms Hurley.
“As a result — I don’t know if resilience is as good a word as self-contained — but a lot of them are used to getting on with things on their own or just within their families.
That sense of geographical isolation and remoteness on the peninsula is something a lot of people would be used to, even though the current situation is obviously very hard for people.”
Living on Bere Island, she knows that remoteness for herself, but it’s been accentuated by the lockdown.
“I’d usually go over on the boat at quarter to eight and I’d be in the school by five past eight,” says Ms Hurley. “The kids on the island get the boat at half-eight.
“The island’s very quiet now, with the lockdown. If you go out for a walk, it’s unlikely you’d meet someone, but that might be the way anyway.
"We have a very successful park run on a Saturday, but that’s obviously stopped, while people living around the country who have a family tie to the island usually come down at Easter. That isn’t going to happen this year.
“There are about 18 kids in the primary school here on the island. They’re not in the school, obviously — they’re using Google Classroom — but, as I say, to an extent they’re used to being away from other people.
“That doesn’t mean it’s easy for them, because it isn’t, but, I suppose, they’re more used to the isolation than people in more built-up parts of the country might be.”
The isolation can be used to learn new skills, she says.
“We’re still working on the premise that the exams will go on — the kids are working away at home — and it’s also true that they can learn life skills, in this period, that we never had to as kids.
“There are other forms of learning, forms which are different to curriculum learning. We’re living through a historical period, for instance, so keeping some form of record — apart from a digital record — is a good idea.
“Even though kids mightn’t admit it out loud, there’s a bit of comfort in hearing the teachers’ voices, in maintaining our focus on the exams.”