Secret Teacher: The plan for schools reopening highlights our downfalls

Crowded classrooms and outdated bathroom facilities show that current conditions must change
Secret Teacher: The plan for schools reopening highlights our downfalls

When the government unveiled its re-opening plan on Monday I was quietly impressed, says the Secret Teacher. Picture: Danny Lawson/PA Wire

€375 million sounds like a lot of money, doesn’t it? When the government unveiled its re-opening plan on Monday I was quietly impressed. They’re taking this seriously, I thought to myself. It’s all going to be ok.

The following day I read the document in more detail and asked myself a deeper question: what is the current condition of schools in Ireland that this is costing so much?

Furthermore, is it possible that we’re throwing a very expensive Band-aid over a considerable gash – one that’s remained untouched and uncared for, hidden from view. Covid-19 is shining a light on it but it’s so very last minute, it’s become a very costly problem.

I mean, should one metre be so hard to achieve at secondary? For obvious reasons, it’s tough to keep primary children apart but by 12 and 13, most students are pretty sensible. 

Is one metre not a usual personal space parameter in a room? Maybe not in Dunnes Stores or in a local hairdresser, such places are busy and thankfully we spend a finite time in them. But in a place of learning? Where you dictate that a child sits for hours on end – is one metre too much to expect?

I think parents got a good sense of how challenging it is to keep young people focused during homeschooling. Trust me, it gets no easier when you multiply your child by 30. Ireland’s class sizes are well above EU and OECD averages. Covid is just highlighting a problem that’s always been there. Only now, because we have a month to go, we’re having to throw huge money at it.

Does anyone else feel the way I do when I spend way too much money on a dress on Christmas Eve? Knowing, as I hand over money at the till that the same dress will be on the discount rack in a few weeks time.

A lot of this money is being spent to make up for shortcomings in our existing amenities. I just hope they do a good job and come up with sustainable improvements, not last minute, expensive add-ons.

€75 million alone is for toilets and extra sanitation spaces. Will these facilities will be useful and functioning in twenty years time? More money is being spent to split classes and to provide extra supervision but the logistics are sketchy at best. In the guidelines, they even suggest putting three classes in a PE hall! Firstly, we have no communal area in our school. None. Secondly, the acoustics of that situation would be a living nightmare and I assure you, no deep learning would happen.

The illustrations of the ‘standard classroom’ supporting the guidelines depict 24 students and one teacher. One of my classes, an exam class last year, had thirty-two enrolled students on the register, a team teacher and an SNA. This is very usual in Irish schools. We are rammed together. We are uncomfortable. 

File image. Picture: iStock
File image. Picture: iStock

Covid-19 is doing us one big favour: it’s highlighting that our current conditions are not good enough.

In Italy, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte pointed out that we just need to avoid ‘chicken coops.’ I’m telling you, that’s often what my classroom feels like. There’s no space, no air and we’re all on the verge of sleep because the room is simply not conducive to concentrated work – or breathing for that matter!

There are hundreds of schools across the country like mine. They have no assembly halls, a handful of toilets, poor ventilation and no communal spaces. They have no storage space for the cupboards we’ve been asked to miraculously move before September. The government’s document tells us that teachers may need to ‘create an area where individual students can take a comfort break’ if they have special needs. How do teachers ‘create spaces’ out of thin air?

And another point I’d like to raise is the suggestion that we shouldn’t wear facemasks. Really? We demand them in shops and buses but not in schools? Are teachers and children, particularly teenagers, exempt from what seems to be agreed-upon medical advice? Surely teachers should be given visors.

I’m eager to get back to work but I’m increasingly disheartened by unions and teachers being attacked in the media. Commentaries declare that schools are exceptionally safe places and that unions are simply avoiding hard work. Nobody seems to acknowledge that their concerns may be legitimate. 

We work with healthy children and our concerns are for their safety and their learning. We are not in the same environment as most other professions. Classroom are very specific. And it should be ok to acknowledge that outbreaks can happen in schools like Gymnasium Rehavia in Jerusalem where 153 students and 25 staff members tested positive.

But I shouldn’t be surprised that people are willing to ignore the realities of life in school. It’s what we always do. It’s why my school has been fighting for an ASD classroom for years. Teachers and unions, far too often, are expected to shut up and get on with it and if they complain, they’re accused of being lazy.

But maybe, just maybe, it’s possible that they’re fighting for your children and for safer, higher standards in their schools.

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