Remote learning takes hold in Lanesboro Community College
This is a difficult time of year for students at the best of times, as end of year tests take over, Leaving Cert and Junior Cert exam preparation is at its most intense, and students prepare to say goodbye to their classmates and teachers before the summer break.
But this year, Covid-19 has thrown up difficulties that no school teacher or parent could have predicted, with schools remaining closed until at least September, and State exams not going ahead as planned.
“There’s lots going on,” Deputy Principal of Lanesboro Community College Michael Lyons explained to the Longford Leader last week.
The school is working hard to ensure school goes on with some semblance of normality, with a schedule that sticks closely to the structure of a normal school day.
“We’re trying to keep everything going in the present climate. We decided very early on that this was the way to go,” said Mr Lyons.
And so far, so good, if the regular school notes and daily online assemblies are anything to go by. It’s been an unusual few months but the staff of LCC feel like they’re adjusting.
“March 12 was a terribly shocking time for the kids,” said Mr Lyons, referring to that fateful day when An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced the closure of all schools.
“We were working as usual then, by the end of the day, there wasn’t a book left in assembly and all of the lockers were empty and there was a real sense of a traumatic experience. We had to do something.”
So the teachers and staff at the school quickly started working on a remote school system, starting with the daily assembly.
“We do an assembly every morning anyway, so we started fairly quickly with an online assembly where we meet and greet the students and prepare for the day and then there’s a prayer by our chaplain. We started doing that quite quickly,” Mr Lyons explained.
“So now we have a daily assembly sent out to all the students and staff and we put that online on the front page of our website around 9am and all of the information is there.”
Students are kept busy with extracurricular activities such as tracked runs for their PE teacher, online chess games, and plenty of other resources to keep their young minds busy.
“It’s not easy. If you’re not seeing them face to face, it’s difficult. But we’re in close contact with parents,” said Mr Lyons.
“We have a student council meeting every week and they would air their concerns and views and that would feed back to the staff and the staff have regular meetings.
“We’re creating a conversation between ourselves, the parents, the students and teachers. It’s all about building up a sense of community through having conversations.”
The school also has a teacher with a Home School Community Liaison role, who has been in touch with all the parents for feedback on how their children are progressing with their remote learning.
“Some of it has been challenging but a lot of the feedback has been good,” Mr Lyons explained.
“We’re only learning. Everyone is learning. But we’re doing it together. Our school motto is ‘ar aghaidh le chéile’ - we rise together.”
At the moment, it’s all about online exams - something completely new and different for the school.
“We’ve never done anything like this before,” said Mr Lyons.
“We’re a DEIS school, so we don’t have a lot of resources, but 96% of students have turned up and done their online tests. That’s an incredible turnout.
“We gave out over 60 laptops and we have ensured every child can engage with that, and they can. And then you have the parents working with them at home, helping them to download their files, so there’s also that student-parent bonding.”
This week, the government entered its five-phase roadmap to reopening the country and people are looking towards an uncertain but hopeful future where things can get back to normal.
“We have to look forward to September,” said Mr Lyons.
“I keep saying to people not to worry about whether or not the school will open in September. Covid-19 will set that agenda and we can only prepare for possible eventualities. And it is a possible eventuality that we won’t be able to open up again if there’s a second wave of this virus.
“But we now know that we can do this. It’s challenging but it can be done and it can keep us ticking over until we can be in the classroom again. But it can only serve as a holding exercise.”
Earlier this month, Minister for Education Joe McHugh announced that the Leaving Certificate exams would not go ahead as planned this year, following months of discussion, which left already stressed students confused and crying out for clarity on the issue.
Exams for this year had been scheduled to start on July 29 but have since been cancelled. Students will instead be offered calculated grades, or estimated marks which will be collected from schools and adjusted as part of a national standardisation process.
However, students who are uncomfortable with this will have the opportunity to sit the exams at a later stage when it is safe to do so.
This current system means that a student will be scored by their teachers who will estimate a percentage mark for each student, as well as a ranking compared to classmates. This will happen for each individual subject.
Teachers will use records of a student’s performance and progress; for example, classwork and homework; class assessments; examinations in school, at Christmas or summer, mock exams and also coursework.
“With the Leaving Cert, we can only do what has been set out for us to do,” said Mr Lyons on the subject of state exams.
“We keep telling our students that, whatever happens, we will work with you and for you. The school cannot have any discussion around students’ grades until after the 29th of June.
“We’re going to be working very hard with students but we can’t communicate with parents over grades.”
The Department of Education announced last week that students are not to make contact with teachers over grades, as this would be considered “canvassing”.
The current structure of the Leaving Cert has been criticised by students for a long number of years with students from various Longford schools previously commenting to the Longford Leader that a continuous assessment system would be far more beneficial.
It’s hard to know whether Covid-19 will change the future of school and exams for good but, right now, teachers and students alike are just trying to get through these difficult months.
“I think this model is a good thing. It will look at students’ participation and their engagement over the past number of years. I think people should be a little bit more relaxed about it,” said Mr Lyons.
“We could be looking at a major change in school life. I think Covid-19 has taught us that we shouldn’t look too far into the future. We need to look after the important things. I think as a country we will come out of this with a different set of priorities.
“I’m so proud to be part of a school where people work so well together. We’ve taken every challenge on and we’ve done something very special. But we need a break very soon.”