Michael Moynihan: Can schools and sport co-exist in a pandemic?

As schools reopen and students flood back to classrooms, are they also flooding back onto playing fields?
Michael Moynihan: Can schools and sport co-exist in a pandemic?

Midleton CBS players celebrate after winning the Harty Cup final against CBC Cork at Páirc Uí Rinn last year. Taking the competitive element of the Harty Cup out of it, just giving the lads a chance to play some ball with friends they haven’t engaged much with since last March — that’ll be a massive plus if it does happen, said Liam Cronin, GAA coordinator with Ardscoil Rís in Limerick. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach

As schools reopen and students flood back to classrooms, are they also flooding back onto playing fields?

There’s a variety of challenges involved, from the notion that students might have to wear sports gear under their uniforms because they can’t tog out in school to the need to disinfect chess pieces after games.

Tadhg Óg Murphy of Gaelcholáiste Mhuire AG ponders the situation.

“In some ways you’d be better off ringing in a few weeks, because we’ve nothing really done yet.

“The first thing is that if we don’t give kids the opportunity to opt-in or opt-out then we’re asking for trouble. We’re all trying to tread carefully and meet the guidelines.

“At this stage we’re observing the club scene to see how they’re doing. 

"My own nephew plays with Sars under-sixes, and there was pandemonium a week or two ago when we were all unsure if parents could enter club grounds. That was a hurdle we had to get over.

“There’s also still talk about September 13 being the date that the 200-person limit at games might be lifted, so we’ll have to see what happens there.” 

Murphy’s focus is on Gaelic games in the mixed school on Cork’s northside (“Along with Martin Coleman, Jamie Harrington, Padraic Hogan and Pa Ó Laoire,”).

When he says they’re “still trying to observe what happens in the (GAA) clubs” while making their own plans he’s echoed by Liam Cronin, GAA co-ordinator with Ardscoil Rís in Limerick.

“If the students and their parents are comfortable with them playing then we go ahead.

“The vast majority of them would probably have been engaged in some form of GAA club activity in the last few weeks, and enjoying being on the pitch.

“Now, as the club season begins to wind down we’d be hoping to provide that outlet for them.

We’re only back a couple of days but already the school environment is very different to what it normally is with all the restrictions and social distancing in place.

“From what I’ve seen of some schools they’re already using PE halls for other activities so I think this year, more than any other year, the GAA in schools has a massive role to play in terms of mental health.

“Taking the competitive element of the Harty Cup out of it, just giving the lads a chance to play some ball with friends they haven’t engaged much with since last March - that’ll be a massive plus if it does happen.” 

Donal O’Mahony, deputy principal of Christian Brothers College in Cork, echoes Murphy and Cronin on the challenges ahead.

“We’re very conscious that when it comes to the students their experience of the pandemic and lockdown vary a lot.

“First years, for instance, had a very difficult finish to their time in primary school overall, but a lot of them would have missed out on playing in the Sciath na Scoil which would be a big part of their primary school sporting experience.

“Students at different stages of their secondary school experience missed out on different things, and it’s not easy for anyone. 

"You want them to be involved in sport and teachers, coaches, everyone is doing their best to make that happen.” 

CBC is a fabled rugby nursery which is now well established as a hurling power as well, but O’Mahony broadens the conversation regarding school sport.

“We have to create a safe environment for the students, first and foremost, and to see the parameters within which we can work. 

We've seen the benefits of sport, when kids get the balance between sport and academics right and are involved in a good culture.

“But it’s not just the ‘big’ sports. People might associate Christians with playing Pres or the Harty Cup, but our job is to think about the chess club, the arts club, the draughts club, all of the clubs which cater for those who aren’t involved with rugby and hurling in the school.

“We’d always be acutely conscious of the value that adds for the cohort of students involved with those clubs, and that’s the kind of detail you’re getting into, and every day you encounter something different that has to be addressed.

“Every day we’re coming up against new stuff, students and teachers alike.” 

Liam Cronin also points to the challenge posed by logistics in a pandemic: “From being involved with a club myself over the summer I’ve seen players come to the pitch togged out already. Our pupils are going to be sitting in a school uniform all day, so we have to look at providing a safe environment for them to change.

“It may be a case starting off that they go home and change and then come back, and looking at matches themselves you’d wonder how travel will work. Will we have to limit panels to 22, two teachers and a bus driver to accommodate travelling by bus?

“We’ve been lucky enough in recent years getting numbers who are interested in playing - it’d be hard to tell 15 or 16 fellas that they can’t go to a game.

“It’s only when we get up and running that we’ll encounter hurdles like that, which we hadn’t anticipated, the things that’ll have to be ironed out ahead of playing games.” 

Murphy agrees, particularly on the point that students come to school in uniform: “Will we get to a stage where students are togged out under their tracksuits or uniforms and be ready to go?

“If you’d suggested a year ago these would be issues we’d have to untangle people would have thought you were mad, but they have to be dealt with.

The onus is on teachers and coaches to create an environment where the students are at ease. I love coaching in the school, the crack the students have with each other, the characters slagging and enjoying the banter - that element of sport is important, too.

“The negativity about schools reopening at all is creating anxiety for students everywhere - they’re already coming to school with masks and so on, which is tough enough on them. We’re just trying to give them an outlet for enjoyment away from that.” 

O’Mahony sums up the attitude of many schools and teachers: the search is always on for solutions, given what sport contributes to students.

“We’re in extraordinary times, everyone knows that, but what we’re trying to do is find solutions.

“Everyone knows there are problems, and it’s easy to give up and say we shouldn’t do anything, but our attitude is to see what we can do as best we can.

“Every day has to be taken on its merits, but we would definitely see sport as an important part of what we do up here - we see the impact it has on the kids, and the impact it’ll hopefully have on them this year again. But our focus is on keeping the virus from entering the school. Our focus is one hundred per cent on ensuring that doesn’t happen.”

County board link-up parked by the pandemic

The pandemic has already disrupted an innovative partnership between schools and the county board in Cork city.

Tadhg Óg Murphy of Gaelcholáiste Mhuire AG says that Aidan O’Connell of the Cork County Board was steering an initiative earlier this year to develop players that fell by the wayside.

“We had a partnership with Aidan O’Connell, the performance manager with the Cork County Board, which we launched last January for GAA players who were attending the AG, but the pandemic played havoc with it.

“It was a pity, because it was about creating a culture of discipline with young players, and it’s something we’d love to get back to. 

"We’ll have to see how things go with the schools returning to see if we can get it going again.” 

Liam Cronin of Ardscoil Rís in Limerick has pointed to a potential headache looming with the delayed minor championships at inter county level. 

In Munster minor football and hurling games are scheduled for October and November, which may clash with Harty Cup and Corn Ui Mhuiri fixtures. 

“With the Harty you’re going to have lads playing U17 for their counties coming up to Christmas, which is another complication. 

"We may have to take a step back from the competitive outlet this year to just enable lads to get out and get some exercise and enjoyment. 

"It’s going to be a strange enough environment inside the school from quarter to nine to quarter to five.” 

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