My last Blog was a frank interview with a Primary School Principal. It was an honest appraisal of how Covid has impacted the way Teaching and Learning has been managed in the past 18 months from the perspective of a school leader. During the interview I asked about the mental health of teachers and the response was unambiguous:

‘A seriously big worry as so many have been working in an ‘at-risk’ environment prior to vaccination. Many have accessed support from the school counsellor that we have brought in.

I was struck by the starkness of the choice of the phrase, ‘at-risk environment’. What could possibly have caused a core foundation upon which society is built, the education of its citizens, to become an ‘at-risk environment’? What circumstances led to the destabilising of this central tenet of civilisation; this solid foundation? What could possibly threaten this sanctuary, this font of opportunity, this long-established foundry so crucial in forging our young citizens?

Quite simply it was a virus that was potent enough to demand interventions which required us to review how we interacted with one another. Bonds were broken to protect ourselves. Closeness, intimacy and social gatherings could have fatal consequences. ‘Safety in numbers’ became ‘risk in numbers’. Societal norms became anathema. Things we did together, work, play, learn, we now did in limited numbers. We interacted using modern technology which made the whole experience more tolerable. The thought of a pandemic without the digital glue (the internet) that bound us together is too dire to contemplate. And still it goes on. Vaccination rates are rising, but so too are cases and fatalities. Fear persists in all of us. Stability seems still as ephemeral as ever it did, and under uncertain circumstances all we can do is hope.

The interviews that follow, seem now to be almost a retrospective: What ‘was’ it like for you? Maybe I need to rephrase that as the prospect of other lockdowns and school closures casts an ominous shadow over the coming months. One thing I got from the interviews of these individual young people was their resilience. “Ok, it was and is tough but let’s just get on with it”. Good for you!

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Interview with a 17-year-old Student

What year are you in?
I am an upper sixth student at a Grammar school in Belfast. I am currently seventeen years old.

How has your learning been affected by Covid?
Yes, very much so. I believe the disruption to the teaching has been the thing that has caused my learning to be affected the most. Not being in a classroom environment takes its toll on your attentiveness to the class content.

Have you missed your friends?
One of the main reasons why I was so excited to get back to school this year was to see some my friends! I was lucky to be able to meet up with some local friends but some I hadn’t seen in months.

Has Home-Schooling worked for you?
If I’m being honest, not really. I feel very much at a disadvantage to others who have been at this stage in their schooling. There is massive difference between online learning and face to face school learning.

Do you have the right equipment and internet connection at home to enable you to learn effectively?
I live an area that normally has poor internet connection, but it has been good recently. My laptop is pretty old and it’s slow. Sometimes it struggled with certain apps we had to use, like Publisher. Also, I have been having some issues with the video chat in MS Teams, it cuts out from time to time and I feel like I am missing important information. I know some of my friends have similar concerns.

Is there anybody at home who can help you when you’re stuck on something?
Yeah, I have my parents who can be quite good at reading over things with me. I have a brother who is a teacher also who also did a similar A-level as me.

Have your teachers been easy to get hold of when you need them?
They were available to talk to during live lessons. They would sometimes not be able to reply straight away to issues, but the explaining of tasks was a big problem.

With school opening back up are you afraid to go in?
I felt we had to go back last year because of exams so I didn’t care. I wasn’t worried in September because I had caught it over summer and since then I’ve had my first vaccine.

Do you practice all of the Covid rules when you’re going to and from school, and in school? Hand hygiene, keeping your distance, wearing a mask?
Yeah I keep doing all of these things as much as I can. The teachers do well to remind us to sanitise our hands when we enter the classrooms, and masks are just second nature to most of us now.

So on the topic of masks, what is your attitude towards them?
It’s annoying but it’s not the end of the world like, more annoying when people moan about it all the time – if it protects me and my friends, then it’s a no-brainer.

What is your attitude to the vaccine?
I was the last one in my family to get it, so I was looking forward to it. If it meant things could go back to normal, I’m more than happy to do it.

Do you think the disruption to schooling has had a negative effect on your education?
Yeah I definitely think the stage we are at compared to the previous upper sixths, maybe not last years but definitely every other year before. It’s not really our fault that we haven’t been able to complete the full course and know everything before sitting our exams

Are you fearful for your future prospects having seen the disruption to examinations and the way results are awarded?
We haven’t been able to complete the course and I want to go to university to study business. So, I do think that there will definitely be a knock-on effect for anyone in school the past couple of years who has moved on to university or work.

Are you satisfied with the way the Education Department has handled the crisis in relation to schools? How could they have done better?
I’d say they should have been able to help those people who didn’t have the equipment to access the schoolwork. I was lucky because I could share if and when my laptop went down. But I don’t know if it is going to be fair to expect students in year groups doing GCSEs or A2s to be able to be graded the same way as other years because we haven’t been able to complete the course.

Interview with a Year 12 Pupil

What year are you in?
Fifth Year (y12) but I was in third and fourth year during lockdowns

How has your learning been affected by Covid?
I feel like I’m quite far behind in my GCSE year

Have you missed your friends?
Yes, very, very much; I was able to keep in touch with them on social media but it’s not the same as actually being with them.

Has Home-Schooling worked for you?
Not at all, I was stressed after trying to do it at home, only to be told when I went back to school that it would all be done again because a lot of people didn’t do the work.

Do you have the right equipment and internet connection at home to enable you to learn effectively?
Yes, I have a tablet, smartphone and decent WiFi.

Is there anybody at home who can help you when you’re stuck on something?
Yes, my mum but if she didn’t know or Google didn’t know then I was stuck, also my mum was taught things in a different way than I was.

Have your teachers been easy to get hold of when you need them?
Most of the time, I was able to email them when I needed any guidance.

With school opening back up are you afraid to go in?
Not at all, I am just excited to see my friends again.

Do you practice all of the Covid rules when you’re going to and from school, and in school? Hand hygiene, keeping your distance, wearing a mask?
Yes, I don’t social distance because it’s pretty impossible within the school with the number of pupils in corridors and on the buses. We also have seating plans in classrooms that has us sitting next to each other, we had ‘bubbles’ where we stayed with our own year group and didn’t mix with other groups but that ended when we got out of the school gates.

What is your attitude to wearing masks?
I don’t wear a mask – they make me quite anxious and distract me from doing my work.

What is your attitude to the vaccine?
I haven’t thought about it to be honest.

Do you think the disruption to schooling has had a negative effect on your education?
Yes, I feel like I’m not at the standard I need to be at.

Are you fearful for your future prospects having seen the disruption to examinations and the way results are awarded?
Yes very much so. I just hope that Covid is factored in when we get our grades back.

Are you satisfied with the way the Education Department has handled the crisis in relation to schools? I have mixed feelings about how it was handled.

Mum’s Perspective

Year 12 Pupil and P7 Pupil with Special Educational needs.

How has their learning been affected by Covid?
I feel that they missed out on a lot of things, the teachers put up videos explaining the classwork that needed to be done and it was all on the seesaw app which meant a lot of screen time and more like playing games for them rather than learning, they were kept up to date with spellings and tables, and with libraries etc being closed they were limited to reading only the books they have at home.

Have they missed their friends?
My P3 struggled a lot with not seeing his friends, he is very social, my P7 has Aspergers syndrome which makes being social difficult so it was harder for him when he did have to go back to school in a very social setting and he was very tired coming home.

Has Home-Schooling worked for your children?
I feel that my P3 was OK as he learned what the rest of the class was learning and was easy for me to teach him. With my P7 I struggled to help him with things. I’m not great when it comes to maths, so I did struggle a lot with things like that, if he didn’t know and I didn’t know we just had to Google it and a few times we were both left confused 😂.

Do you have the right equipment and internet connection at home to enable your children to learn effectively?
Yes we used smartphones but with them being smaller screens it was sometimes hard to do things on the seesaw app which got a bit frustrating.

Is there anyone at home who can help them when they’re stuck on something?
There was only me to help and if I didn’t know then it was Google.

Have teachers been easy to get hold of when you need them?

We could message the teachers on seesaw, the schools also rang us for check ins every so often.

With school opening back up are they afraid to go in?
My P3 was very teary going into school, he cried most mornings that he didn’t want to go. This was after the second lockdown until the end of term in June. My P7 struggled to get back into routine.

Do the children practice all of the Covid rules when going to and from school, and in school? Hand hygiene, keeping your distance, wearing a mask?
Yes we stuck to the rules and as a parent in the playground we all social distanced and wore masks and the kids were in bubbles and didn’t mix with other classes.

What is your attitude to wearing masks?
I wore a mask when needed.

What is your attitude to the vaccine?
I’m on the fence about the vaccine at the minute for me and my children.

Do you think the disruption to schooling has had a negative effect on their education?
Yes they would have learned a lot more and a lot better had they been at school.

Are you fearful for your children’s future prospects having seen the disruption to examinations and the way results are awarded?
Yes for my year 12 as she should have been doing GCSEs during lockdowns.

Are you satisfied with the way the Education Department has handled the crisis in relation to schools?
Yes I feel they dealt with it the only way they could.

Interview with a Year 9 Student

What year are you in?
I’m in year 9

How has your learning been affected by Covid?
Not really. I have everything I need at home and I’m keeping up well with lessons.

Have you missed your friends?
I am but since my first year at secondary was Covid year, most of my friends were ones from my old primary. I didn’t have time to meet many new ones.

Has Home-Schooling worked for you?
Because of my age and school year it’s hard to tell. I have nothing to compare it to. I’m doing okay workwise, I think.

Do you have the right equipment and internet connection at home to enable you to learn effectively?
Yes. I have a computer and good internet.

Is there anybody at home who can help you when you’re stuck on something?
Yes, my parents help me and know the sort of stuff I’m doing. They’re both very smart.

Have your teachers been easy to get hold of when you need them?
Yes, they are. Mum and Dad talk to them at times too.

With school opening back up are you afraid to go in?
I’m not afraid. I’m a bit anxious. It’s like my first day at secondary all over again. Butterflies and excitement

Do you practice all of the Covid rules when you’re going to and from school, and in school? Hand hygiene, keeping your distance, wearing a mask?
Yes I do what I’m asked to do.

What is your attitude to wearing masks?
I think it’s a good idea. Mum and Dad always follow the rules so they set a good example.

What is your attitude to the vaccine?
If I’m asked to do it to keep safe then I will. My Granny and Granda are old and I don’t want to pass anything on to them. I only see them at their door so if getting the vaccine means I can see them in their house then I’ll get it.

Do you think the disruption to schooling has had a negative effect on your education?
Not really. I’m keeping up and my teachers say I’m doing well.

Are you fearful for your future prospects having seen the disruption to examinations and the way results are awarded?
I’m too young to think of that now.

Are you satisfied with the way the Education Department has handled the crisis in relation to schools? How could they have done better?
I don’t know. I think everyone’s doing their best.

Interview with a P7 Pupil.

What year are you in?
P7

How has your learning been affected by Covid?
It’s harder as my teacher and assistant help me a lot

Have you missed your friends?
Yes, a lot

Has Home-Schooling worked for you?
Not really, I prefer to be in my class

Do you have the right equipment and internet connection at home to enable you to learn effectively?
Yes we have laptop, tablets and phones

Is there anybody at home who can help you when you’re stuck on something?
Mum and Dad help me most nights.

Have your teachers been easy to get hold of when you need them?
Yes, Mum and Dad talk to them.

With school opening back up are you afraid to go in?
Not really, I like being in school with my friends

Do you practice all of the Covid rules when you’re going to and from school, and in school? Hand hygiene, keeping your distance, wearing a mask?
Some – we don’t wear masks but always wash our hands. We stay in our own bubbles at playtime

What is your attitude to wearing masks?
I don’t like it

What is your attitude to the vaccine?
I’d have to ask my Mum and Dad – I don’t think I’m allowed one yet.

Do you think the disruption to schooling has had a negative effect on your education?
Yes

Are you fearful for your future prospects having seen the disruption to examinations and the way results are awarded?
I don’t know

Are you satisfied with the way the Education Department has handled the crisis in relation to schools? How could they have done better?
I don’t know


Garry Cullen

A Graduate of Queen's University in Belfast, Garry has almost 20 years experience delivering software solutions to the EdTech Sector in the UK.

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