How were your first couple of weeks during back to school season?
In August, when we heard the announcements about Ireland finally emerging from the pandemic, many of us were looking forward to getting back to normal.
However, when the government’s plans for reopening schools didn’t change from last year, just as a new variant was rearing its head, I had a very bad feeling.
As a principal of a primary school, I had just experienced the worst year of my career.
While nobody expected schools to be the same during the pandemic, I don’t think anybody expected things to be as bad as they were.
Everything that is fun about teaching was stripped away: no group work, no singing, no mixing, no sharing; it was like being in the classroom our grandparents were in; and everyone was petrified.
We were frightened because no matter how many times the education minister said that schools were safe, we knew our classrooms were still the most crowded in the EU and social distancing was an impossibility.
Cases began to spread in schools but there was suspicion that public health were claiming these school outbreaks were community transmissions.
Given that there were no reported direct deaths as a result of school transmissions, many commentators wondered what teachers were worried about in the first place. In my opinion, we all got lucky.
I have just completed the first two weeks of the new school year. There are three things that are different from last year:
- The first is that my school has three CO2 monitors, provided by the Department of Education, to measure air quality levels in the 28 rooms in my school;
- The second is that most school staff in Ireland have been vaccinated, not because they were prioritised for the vaccine like many other countries did for their teachers, but because the roll out of the vaccine was quicker than anticipated;
- The third is that the Delta variant is rampant. This time, the government’s luck has run out.
Up to half of primary schools in the country have had a case of Covid-19 in their school in the first two weeks of the school year alone.
While schools have been told to do nothing until public health calls them, the reality is if this was left to happen, I can safely say I wouldn’t have received a single call about all but one of them. (The one I did get was 15 days after the child tested positive.)
The other cases in my school came to my attention, not from public health, but from the families themselves.
If I receive notice of a Covid-19 case after 4.30pm, I have to wait until 9am the next day for a special principal support line.
When it is picked up, the person takes a small number of details and I have to wait up to 24 hours before another person rings me to run through my case in more depth to identify any close contacts if there are any.
Because this person is someone redeployed from another education department, and not a medical professional, they must take the information I give them to a doctor who then makes a call on what happens next.
If the doctor agrees with the findings, I must wait up to another 48 hours to receive a spreadsheet where I have to fill in a large number of details about each close contact.
Once that’s done, public health is supposed to contact the affected people.
Most people will admit that despite the reassurances from the education minister and the expert bodies, waiting this long is potentially very risky.
A conscientious principal, when a positive case is reported, will ensure to let relevant families and staff know there is a case in a classroom; this gives, at least, some protection, reassurance, and maintains a sense of trust.
While all this is happening, a principal will be on the phone to worried families and staff, making sure we haven’t missed anyone that could be affected.
Many staff need the reassurance of a Covid-19 test and this has the knock-on effect of having to find a substitute teacher.
Like last year, there is a shortage, and one could spend many hours hunting for someone to cover a class.
All this takes a huge amount of time. With more than half the principals in the country also having full-time teaching duties, many principals were so busy dealing with cases, there was no time for them to focus on the education of the pupils in their classes.
Teaching and the running of the school is fully compromised when a school leader’s time is taken up when dealing with Covid-19 cases within the school population.
It is putting pressure on our personal lives, with our families expected to suck it up too.
Time and time again I hear my colleagues relay stories about their children asking when they might spend some time with them instead of being on the phone all the time.
Unfortunately, many of my colleagues have become ill; some have already had to take sick leave.
Some have been hospitalised as a direct result of stress. Some have simply decided enough is enough and have jacked it in.
While the pandemic has highlighted huge problems that have been in the education system for many years, whether that’s systematic direct failures such as having the largest class sizes in the EU, chronic underfunding, or the appalling cuts to resources for children with additional needs, to indirect problems such as the role of religion in schools, or how we examine students at the end of their second level education, the ever-increasing burden of workload that has been plonked on to the school principal is one which needs to be examined.
The reason the school principal has ended up, effectively being a contact tracer and a 24-hour hotline for Covid19 is because there is nobody else to do it. This needs urgent attention.
So, tell me again, how were your first couple of weeks back to school?
- Simon Lewis is a school principal, a member of the National Principals’ Forum, and the host of the podcast “If I were the Minister for Education”