It seems incredible to believe but it is only three short weeks since the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar stood on the steps of Blair House in Washington and announced that all schools would be closing later that day. For parents who have been supporting their sons' and daughters' continuation of education over those 21 days it seems like an eternity.
For many families who have struggled to cope with maintaining a structure of learning over those three weeks, the support of their children’s teachers online has been central to the daily routine of ongoing learning.
In the Covid-19 world many families. including those who constitute our teaching force, would today be planning to head to holiday homes by the coast or to resorts in the sun over the coming two weeks. Leaving Cert and Junior Cert students would probably have maintained a programme of exam preparations over Easter, but it would have been self-directed in most cases, as teachers enjoyed a well-earned break.
But what happens now? The restrictions imposed by Government to protect us all from the spread of the virus will see us all effectively confined to our houses for many more weeks, and certainly beyond the end of the traditional Easter break.
There will be no teachers’ conferences during Easter week in Killarney, Galway, Letterkenny, etc, to fill our television screens and newspapers. Sadly, we will instead be focused on the daily briefings reflecting the deadly daily toll of confirmed Covid-19 cases and deaths attributed to its cold hand.
Instead of having to defend the ongoing failure of Government to close the differential in pay scales between teachers recruited pre and post 2011, Minister for Education Joe McHugh will instead continue to grapple with the consequences of having to keep the schools closed after April 20, if that is what the HSE advisory panel decides is in all our best interest.
The question on every parents’ lips as we head into the weekend, is,whether the daily support from teachers which has sustained learning over the past three weeks will suddenly disappear at 4pm tomorrow afternoon?
From a contractual perspective there is absolutely no requirement on any teacher to engage online with individual students, or for that matter class groups, over the next two weeks.
But, given that front line staff in every other sector both public and private have abandoned lifelong held work practices to maintain social cohesion through this “war” on the deadly enemy Covid-19, are our teachers going to sit back and relax at home?
For many students not facing State exams at some stage when this is all over, continuing schoolwork over the next two weeks might be a big, as well as an unnecessary, ask. But there are 24 hours in every day, and being confined to our homes and immediate environs, it is certain that without a schedule of planned activities for each member of the family, the tensions will very quickly come to boiling point in many homes.
As has been stated many times over the past three weeks, learning can take many forms. Children can observe and record changes in the natural world as Spring eases towards Summer. They can nurture some vegetables or flowers, and see if they can bring them to full growth, no easy task with weeds, slugs, greenfly etc.
They can keep a diary of their reflections as this crisis rolls on, so that in years to come they can share it with their own children, or they can bury themselves for a period each day in reading age appropriate novels. The list of activities available within the confines of our homes and gardens to children, and adults for that matter, is endless.
The key to ensuring that we continue to keep our homes harmonious over the coming weeks is to sit down today and together plan a schedule of activities for each family member. A non-contentious review of how we are all getting on as the days unfold, is an excellent way to maintain the motivation of each member of the family.
For Leaving Cert exam students who will sit the written papers in all their subjects when the HSE deems it safe to do so, easing up on the preparations at this stage would be less than wise. I am certain that my former teaching colleagues (I retired from the classroom in October last after 43 years ) will be mindful of the stress that their Leaving Cert, and to a lesser extent Junior Cert, students are under at this time.
Given that they too are confined to their homes and will not be redeployed to work in other areas of the front-line services as clarified on Tuesday last, I would hope that teachers will continue to support students over the coming weeks. Having seen my own colleagues providing additional classes to their exam students, when winter storms have closed schools during my time as a teacher, and during Easter and the weeks running into the written exams in June every year, I know that Ireland's teachers will not be found wanting in the days and weeks ahead.
I continue to be mindful of those teachers and students who remain isolated because of IT deficiencies in our national network of broadband, and assure them that those planning the State exams are very mindful that there is a wide discrepancy in the levels of educational support currently been experienced by exam students.
For this reason, students and families in those circumstances can be reassured that students will not be pitched directly from the present lockdown back into exam halls, when this is all over. A period of classroom teaching and exam preparations will be built into the planning for all current sixth year students when the green light to reopen our schools is eventually given. Such reassurance is not of course a justification to ease up in any way on their current schedule of work.