Visors, staggered start-times and hand sanitiser: Coláiste Éamann Rís prepares to welcome students back

Visors, staggered start-times and hand sanitiser: Coláiste Éamann Rís prepares to welcome students back
School principal Aaron Wolfe using one of the many hand sanitizers in the school corridors which have been put in place against coronavirus at Coláiste Éamann Rís, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan

Appointed full-time on July 3 after a year-long stint as acting principal, Aaron Wolfe is preparing to welcome 60 new girls to first year alongside 60 new boys, as the co-ed revolution of one of Cork's most beloved boys' schools continues into its second year.

The 380-pupil school formerly known as Deerpark CBS has been getting a makeover since it closed in March due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and Mr Wolfe said the staff has been doing its best to make sure pupils, staff and parents alike can be reassured about its safety once it opens its doors for the new term.

Social distancing will be almost impossible in the school due to its layout, Mr Wolfe said, despite countless hours trying to find a way to solve the conundrum.

His plan is for teachers, special needs assistants (SNAs) and pupils to have visors so learning and teaching can continue unabated.

Masks are not ideal, as teachers and pupils need to see each other speaking for the full learning experience, Mr Wolfe said.

"It's just not physically possible to socially distance in the classrooms because you cannot split 30 students into three groups of 10 and have them all monitored with the amount of teaching staff we are allocated.

"We'll be all hands on deck as it is. The secretaries and caretakers have been truly amazing in the work they have done in recent months, barely stopping so they can make sure we have the safest environment possible for our students and teachers to return," Mr Wolfe said.

School principal Aaron Wolfe sitting in one of his class rooms with social distance measures in place to welcome back his students to Coláiste Éamann Rís, Cork. Picture: Dan Linehan
School principal Aaron Wolfe sitting in one of his class rooms with social distance measures in place to welcome back his students to Coláiste Éamann Rís, Cork. Picture: Dan Linehan

There were also concerns about making sure it was safe for students and teachers with underlying conditions that may leave them vulnerable to the pandemic's clutches, he added.

"We haven't planned as such for reopening because you are waiting for guidance from the Government. I could make my own plan but the Government could tell me I cannot do it, so you have to be very patient, not lose the run of ourselves and resist doing things you make think will be of benefit," Mr Woulfe said.

"Thank God I haven't touched the timetable yet. If I planned the timetable, it would kill me to go back and throw it out if it was deemed impossible. I can only plan what we know can do. 

"I'm thinking that transition years might not start until second class, or 9.45am; earlier finishes, so perhaps first years could finish at 3.10pm rather than 3.30pm because we don't want big congregations at the gates. Those measures, we think, will work best for our students, parents and teachers alike."

Autonomy to make key decisions would be vital, according to Mr Wolfe. 

A template for a 1,000 pupil school in a town like Tallaght or Gorey would not necessarily suit a school such as Coláiste Éamann Rís in the middle of Cork city, he said.

"Putting a system in place and the Government giving schools autonomy, so that we won't have inspectors telling us what we can and cannot do, would be very important. The decisions that I take with the board of management will be key. It has to suit our school for what it is," he said.

Every school cannot be on the same bus at the same time, he said, which meant staggered starts and finishes could be vital.

Teachers wanted nothing more than to teach, Mr Wolfe said - they just want it to be as safe as possible for all.

"Our teachers, SNAs, caretakers, and secretaries have been truly phenomenal. 

Teacher bashing has become a bit of a national sport, but those who say we get three months off and that it's a handy number, I say to them: go and become a teacher, and see how easy it is. Teaching is a tough vocation. Teachers want nothing more than to be in the classroom.

"However, there are teachers and students who may be vulnerable, so we make no apologies for worrying about their safety first and foremost. Then there are SNAs. An SNA delivers care needs so could be sat with a student in a classroom. We have to make sure those SNAs are looked after and not put at risk, as well as or students."

A badly-needed extension for the school is not going to magically happen in the next four weeks, Mr Wolfe said, so they had to make do with the situation as it is.

"We are waiting to hear back from the Department of Education on additional accommodation, which came in this year. Schools like ours are truly inclusive schools, running autism spectrum disorder (ASD) units, so we feel we should get some leeway on funding. We badly need an extension. It would make a huge difference."

School principal Aaron Wolfe putting up a Covid-19 poster in one of the school corridors as part of the measures in place to welcome back his students to Coláiste Éamann Rís, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan
School principal Aaron Wolfe putting up a Covid-19 poster in one of the school corridors as part of the measures in place to welcome back his students to Coláiste Éamann Rís, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan

With 70 teachers and SNAs, six trainee teachers, three secretaries and two caretakers, it will be a year of self-discovery.

"It is going to be all shoulders to the wheel. But this is an exciting school, it's very busy and is part of the fabric of Cork. This is the best school in the country, as far as I am concerned. I wouldn't swap for anywhere else," Mr Woulfe said.

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