Caroline Herity, principal Piper's Hill College, Naas
It’s impossible to imagine that planning for the consequences of a virus threat informed any part of the project to build Naas’ Piper’s Hill College.
But one of the largest co-educational schools in County Kildare is well placed to accommodate measures put forward to stem a Covid-19 outbreak.
The first thing you notice on entering the main building is the width of the hall and there is plenty of outside space available.
Principal Caroline Herity and her teachers are looking forward to reopening the school.
Ms Herity says that while the school is well resourced to provide education remotely there is nothing like the face to face setting of a teacher and a classroom of students.
Students and teachers will return on a phased basis on August 27. This will allow for induction and training ahead of a full reopening in September.
The school functioned for as long as possible after coronavirus arrived and was providing some school meals until the end of June.
A lot of planning has taken place in the meantime to plan for the functioning of the school. Hand sanitiser have been installed, the premises had undergone a deep clean, classrooms have been reconfigured and signs have put up stressing the importance of the protocols to avoid a virus spread.
“We’re excited to be reopening but there will be challenges like coping with how the students arrive at the school and how they interact when on breaks and at lunchtime. But nothing beats having students in front of you; the teachers want face to face interaction,” said Ms Herity.
There are some 1,000 students at the school and up to now they have arrived and departed at the same time and this may be done on a staggered basis.
Social distancing does not come naturally to teenagers, so the school will be making some changes. For a start there will be an emphasis on using outdoor space as far as possible and it’s hoped to provide a canteen outside (at the opposite end of the main entrance). A one way system of student movement will be devised.
“We’re fortunate that we have the space here to try and manage this,” added Ms Herity.
Another difficulty is that — unlike the other second level schools — PHC students are not allowed to leave the campus during the day.
The teachers will be wearing fully transparent visors so that facial expressions won’t be lost.
And while hand sanitiser will be provided, parents will be asked to ensure that students arrive with hand sanitiser and a mask to encourage personal responsibility.
The government has unveiled a range of measures (including funding for 1,000 new teachers) which have been broadly welcomed, however Ms Herity does not believe that there is a surplus of teachers out there to be recruited. “It will be very different, but we will manage,” she added.
Naas Community College is ready to reopen on August 31 and school management is using the Department of Education and Skills’s roadmap to ensure that all goes according to plan despite fears about the virus.
Principal Ciarán Keegan said the chief responses are observing social distancing, providing hand sanitisation, practising respiratory hygiene and generally making sure the environment is right.
The students will return to an altered environment. Classrooms have been newly laid out to ensure that there is adequate space.
“Fortunately our classroom size at 59 square metres is bigger than the older size of 45 square metres; it’s a bigger school so we have been able to achieve this.
Hand sanitiser will be procured and provided centrally and is set to arrive before the opening day.
A total of 57 hand sanitation points will be opened, signs have been put up and there will be omnipresent reminders about the needs to practice hand cleanliness and distancing.
Other measures include confining students to one classroom as far as possible (the school also has to use four prefab structures at the Piper’s Hill campus in advance of the construction of a new school).
Doors will be left open where possible and there will be regular surface cleaning.
“We want the students and staff to take ownership of surface cleaning as much as possible. It has to be the job that all of us do. Surface cleaning is important and we will promote as strongly as we can,” said Mr Keegan.
Students will be allowed only to interact with their year group.
Mr Keegan said the school is also examining the possibility of staggering the dropping off and collection of students to avoid large groups arriving and departing at once. And trips to the school parents with items forgotten by students like, a lunch or football boots, won’t be allowed.
Mr Keegan also said that participation in sports has not yet been clarified.
Though welcome, the return to school will not come without problems.
“The students have been out for six months, some will have problems and some will be overwhelmed but we will have support including guidance counselling in place,” Mr Keegan said.
Looking ahead the 600 student Naas community College is well placed to cope with another major outbreak. Classes can be done remotely using technology which facilitates the provision of lessons, videos and conferences. Solme 80-85% of NCC students were taught this way from March when the outbreak closed the school.
“The teachers and students did a remarkable job, adapting to online learning, so we’re confident we have a good Plan B in place, if we need it.
The August 31 reopening is likely to be a staggered event with students returning not just to school initially but to learn about the new reality brought about by the virus.