After several months of uncertainty and home learning, children returned to the classroom some five weeks ago for the first time since March.
However, the school experience which they were greeted with is very different from anything that has come before, although there remains a determination to ensure quality teaching and safety of pupils and staff alike.
The first guidance from the Department of Education came in June, and this outlined a phased approach to students returning, but this was updated in August with a change to a full return to teaching.
Speaking to Armagh I, Graham Montgomery, principal of the Royal School Armagh, said they were working to make the experience of student “as ‘normal’ as it would ever be”.
He said: “From maintenance men, to dinner assistants to teachers, everyone has had a role in terms of implementing these changes so there has been a lot of hard work.
“For the pupils we have endeavoured to make their experience as ‘normal’ as it would ever be, and by and large the actual main business of the school, learning and teaching, is continuing with as few interruptions as possible.”
Protective bubbles have been introduced for years eight, nine and 10, with those pupils remaining in the same classroom, and teachers coming to them.
Mr Montgomery stated: “The teachers have been left very tired as they are constantly on the move now but with all of their stuff, they are sort of like tortoises in the way they bring their house with them.
“I have teachers walking about with school bags full of books. It is a very different professional existence for them but the quality of classroom interaction and teaching remains good and they are working hard to ensure this.”
Other protective measures which have been put in place include adherence to social distancing, sanitation stations throughout the school, a one-way system and masks being worn in the corridor or congested areas.
The Royal School principal added: “The thing that strikes me is that people have been very respectful of each other and people understand that they cannot presume to know what somebody else feels about Covid-19, or how concerned somebody else is about it, or how things are going with their families or their own health.”
He also reflected on the new routines of sanitising hands and desks upon entering or leaving classrooms.
“A year ago you wouldn’t have imagined people would have taken the time to do these things but now it is very much part and parcel of what is done,” said Mr Montgomery.
“School life is less ideal than it might otherwise be and the professional work life of the people who work here might be less ideal than it might otherwise be but both pupils and staff are working hard to ensure it is not as bad as it could be.
“Parents drop their kids off in the morning, they pick them up in the afternoon and by and large I think life continues as normal.”
Meanwhile, Nicola Stevenson, principal of Brownlow Integrated College in Craigavon, told Armagh I how her staff had been striving to ensure safety whilst “offering a good learning experience”.
“We are responsible for our staff and pupils – that is paramount in any decisions we have made. Logistically it has been difficult. We have some classes with 28 children plus classroom assistants and a teacher but we have tried to overcome everything.
“It is an evolving situation, we are still always reviewing what we are doing. I meet with my senior leadership team every week and a standing item on the agenda is how things are going and is there anything we need to change.”
Ms Stevenson joked that her pupils may now be “the cleanest children in County Armagh” with the routines of handwashing and sanitation in place at the school.
“Our children have been absolutely fantastic. They really are a credit to our school and to their parents”, she said. “We have noticed even our behaviour, even within the bubbles, has been brilliant. There is less disruption.
“There are some positives and some things that we will continue doing post-Covid, whenever that is.”
One difficulty, which Ms Stevenson pointed to was that schools had now returned six weeks – but teachers were still in the dark as to what would be removed from GCSE content for this year.
Looking ahead, she said that all staff had now gone through development training, which meant that they were “better equipped” to cope with remote learning if another lockdown were to be announced.
Elsewhere, St Patrick’s Grammar School principal Dominic Clarke says he is “very happy that the school has and remains open to educate the students while fully respecting the updated Education Restart Guidance”.
“We have worked tirelessly to create a safe environment for the whole school community by creating social bubbles for year 8 to 14 students, organising new school routines and making adaptations to the school buildings,” he told Armagh I.
Mr Clarke says the school, each day reinforce the reasons for and the benefits of maintaining the bubble structure, the wearing of face coverings, washing and sanitising hands and respiratory hygiene.
He added: “We are very appreciative of the support and understanding of the students, staff and the whole school community in enabling the school to function and the teaching and learning to continue under the very testing, Covid-19 conditions.”
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