CHILDREN in Cork are trying to learn from home in emergency accommodation, unheated homes, and with a lack of internet and necessary equipment, according to a Cork principal.
Nickie Egan, principal of North Presentation Primary School in Cork, said some children are suffering from a lack of internet access and necessary equipment.
Others are having to learn from emergency accommodation and some are sitting at kitchen tables with hats and coats on to combat the cold in households that have to decide between paying for food or heating.
While she said most children have acceptable home learning environments and the equipment needed to engage, Ms Egan said that others are not so lucky.
“We have very many pupils in our school living in small, cramped living conditions, oftentimes with only one tiny area suitable for living, eating, and learning,” she said.
“Oftentimes with four or more children from different classes living and learning in the same space.
“We have families where the basics of life are not available to them.”
“We have families with no internet, no devices, parents without IT skills, parents and children for whom English is a second language or families where the parents have no English at all,” she said.
“They do not have enough money for food and heating so they choose food, the heating suffers, and they sit trying to engage and doing schoolwork in their coats and hats.
“We have families where the parents used to work and be able to provide for their families but now they have no jobs, their sense of dignity and pride is suffering and they are floundering.
“We have families living in emergency accommodation with no proper space to call their own, one room for a whole family to live, eat, sleep, work, and do schoolwork from.
“We can only imagine the horror of this life right now. I would think complaining about being back making banana bread is a nirvana beyond their dreams.
“We can all feel down, stressed, overwhelmed, but this is a whole other level most of us, luckily, will never experience.”
These types of conditions, cramped, cold, stressful, are not supportive of education, learning and general wellbeing, Ms Egan explained.
“Educationally, it is proving extremely difficult for many of these families to engage in learning with and for their children,” she said.
“No broadband, no laptops, no tablets, no space. Many feel so far out of their skillset and comfort zone that they cannot even imagine trying to bridge the divide.
“General wellbeing is at an all-time low. Last lockdown, we were all a little naive maybe and with that naivety came a sense of safety.
“Almost all of our school, the community had had little or no personal experience of Covid. This time is far, far different — families are impacted by Covid to a much greater extent,” Ms Egan revealed.
“They have been sick, relatives have become ill, have died of Covid. Families have been through the awful bleakness that is a Covid death and funeral, lonely and sad.
“The children from our school are caught up in this. They are lonely, scared, bored, frustrated. They miss school, miss their friends, their interactions, their teachers, the familiarity and comfort they get from ‘regular’ life. They are suffering.”
Ms Egan explained that it is difficult for teachers to help out in such circumstances, but they are going above and beyond to do just that.
“It takes thought, effort, initiative, thinking outside the box, and a dedication and love for our families that keeps us going through the hard days,” she said.
“We have needed to look at the situation on a family by family basis, even on a child by child basis within families.
“There is no one size fits all and there is no whole-school plan that will suit all. It needs to be reviewed and adapted according to needs.”
Ms Egan explained that teachers, special educational needs (SEN) teachers and special needs assistants (SNAs) engage with their pupils and their families every weekday using Google Classroom, Zoom, emails, and more, facilitating one-on-one sessions, group classes and group work.
Where online engagement is not possible, the school has adapted to ensure children can participate.
The school facilitated school book collections or dropped them to people’s homes along with weekly worksheets and workpacks prepared by teachers who co-ordinate with the families and pupils via phone calls.
The school distributed 10 tablets, funded either through fundraising or the Department of Education, to families in need and helped with the set-up and support required to use them.
Ms Egan explained that the school also keeps constant tabs on the engagement levels to ensure children and families are not falling behind.
“We call, text, support, and engage with both teachers and families. Teachers also keep in constant phone contact with these families.
“For those who cannot engage we try to help and come up with solutions, for those who will not engage we try to push and encourage as best we can,” she added.
Out of 270 students across the school, only a handful are not engaging, but Ms Egan revealed she feels far from relieved about this.
“These [pupils] keep me awake at night,” she said. “I worry. I see my staff working days twice as long as a school day, I see them planning, delivering, worrying, fretting, supporting, and facilitating every single day, I see their dedication to and their love for their pupils every single day,” she added.
“So many of them are also trying to teach their own children at home. There are no words for how proud I am of them and there are no words for how grateful I am to them.”
While Ms Egan explained the Department of Education has performed well in this current crisis, providing funding to support schools in reopening as well as help, support, and advice, she said the attempts to force schools to reopen after Christmas left a lot to be desired.
Ms Egan said that, for the first time in her 31 years of teaching, she is appalled and disappointed at the department’s handling of the situation.
“The bullish behaviour, the disrespect for staff in schools all over the country exhibited by our minister was quite simply disgraceful.”
“Shame on them for devaluing their employees in this way, shame on them for communicating with principals by email at 8pm on Friday evenings after the information has already been released to the press.
“We love our pupils, miss them beyond belief and will continue as best we can to help and support them until the wonderful day we get to greet them again with open arms, huge smiles behind our masks, and virtual hugs.”