A year like no other - A Primary School in COVID Times

There is a phrase that you've heard many times to describe the last 12 months - 'a year like no other.' In Gracehill Primary School we would agree.

Our School and Nursery Unit are located in the historic village of Gracehill in beautiful County Antrim, Northern Ireland. There are 415 boys and girls attending our Primary School from age 4 to 11 and in the Nursery there are 26 boys and girls preparing to join us in Primary 1. In total 50 adults work in our school on a daily basis to support the boys and girls in their learning, to keep the children safe and to feed the boys and girls (and staff!) at lunchtime.

So, as you can appreciate as we all gathered round our televisions in March 2020 to listen to the Prime Minister announce a national lockdown, the implications for us as for everyone else in the country were huge and unprecedented.

The challenge was significant; however, in Gracehill we have a wonderful team of teachers and support staff who are so adaptable - they needed to be! The staff, working remotely, prepared lessons for the children to work on at home. While the familiar pattern of daily life in school stopped at lockdown, the school building remained open for the children of key workers who were able to come into school for supervised learning.

As the days and weeks passed a new pattern emerged of children uploading their work to their teachers and receiving feedback. We were very aware that families were in very different situations and some parents were adept at home schooling and its demands while others struggled.

It also became clear that many of the events that we enjoy so much like school trips, sports days and end of year concerts weren't going to be possible during lockdown. So the Primary Sevens who were to leave us in June could not enjoy the usual fun but instead participated in a virtual end of year concert which was well received by all. Everyone took part in a virtual sports day and uploaded their videos to their class for everyone to see how they got on in the back gardens! An important aspect of school life is welcoming the new boys and girls who are joining us in Primary 1. Usually we invite the boys and girls to our induction afternoon with their class teacher. This was another event that was not possible. However, we had a drive-through induction where the boys and girls came with their adults to our school playground and drove around the school grounds to meet with their class teachers and assistants! We, like all schools, had to come up with creative and innovative solutions at very short notice!

And so, the school year ended in June with uncertainty as to how the new year would resume. Guidance came in from the Department of Education and Department of Health in Northern Ireland in mid-August and that was when each school had to implement this guidance for the unique circumstances of each setting. We were delighted that we were able to resume in September with our full classes attending every day but there were many changes. In order to achieve social distancing in a large Primary School we had to look at movement of pupils around the school and identify pinch points and work out where children could wash their hands. Because there is only one entrance into and out of the school grounds, with over 400 pupils and parents using it we had to move to staggered start and finish times. We implemented class bubbles to prevent any possible movement of the virus from one class to another. To achieve this the staff gave up their breaks and stayed with their class all day to avoid breaking the bubbles. Even lunches had to be eaten in the classrooms.

In education, we always try and reflect on what has been and see how we can improve going forward. So, in the autumn term of 2020 we implemented a new home school link website called ‘seesaw’ which enabled direct access between class teacher and adults at home and children if they were at home. This proved essential. On occasions a class bubble had to self-isolate due to a positive COVID-19 case in their class. This meant the class had to stay at home and the teacher had to immediately switch to remote learning via ‘seesaw’ for a fortnight.

One important aspect of school life that we were unable to resume was our school assembly but many of our visiting speakers recorded messages for us which we were able to view in each classroom.
Throughout the autumn term there was much discussion about a circuit break or a mini lockdown. The half term at the end of October was extended by a week in an attempt to break the transmission of the virus. This time was appreciated by all as it was a very challenging start to the school year.

Christmas in Gracehill is usually a full of activity with our school fair and the switch on of the village lights, Christmas plays and a carol service in Church. Sadly, this was not possible; however, the boys and girls recorded their Christmas items and carols for adults and parents to view on YouTube.

Over Christmas it became clear that a new variant of the virus was emerging. We were hopeful for a short lockdown - perhaps a week or a fortnight. Unfortunately, a longer lockdown was necessary. And so, the classes reverted to home learning and school again provided supervised learning for the children of key workers. All classes used ‘seesaw’ for remote learning during the lockdown at the start of 2021.

In March, we were able to welcome some of our boys and girls back to school as the lockdown gradually eased. Just before Easter all the classes came back to school but again we had to keep to classroom bubbles and staggered starts to the school day. The safest place to be, was outside with plenty of fresh air. There's plenty of fresh air in Gracehill! All of our pupils go out for a walk each day around the perimeter of our school grounds. This public walkway has been developed by the Gracehill Village Association and the Church. We are really fortunate to have this facility. We also made great use of the village square in Gracehill for rounders, cricket or just out for a walk around the pond.

This summer over the school holidays we were pleased to be able to offer our boys and girls a summer scheme led by some of our teachers. It was a great opportunity for the children to reconnect after multiple lockdowns and isolation.

Though the past 15 months have brought much change and uncertainty it's wonderful to look around the historic village of Gracehill with the amazing old buildings and beautiful Church. It is good to pause and reflect on how some things don't change and remain a constant in our lives.

Our Board of Governors, chaired by Bishop Sarah Groves, continued to meet over Zoom throughout the pandemic. We hope to have face to face meetings this new autumn term. Support from the Board of Governors has been more important than ever in these extremely challenging times.

We look forward with hope and confidence to better days ahead. Undoubtedly there will be further challenges - but in Gracehill Primary School we will continue to be guided by our school motto: 'Caring, Learning, Achieving: Together.'

Robert McCombe

Principal, Gracehill Primary School

Gracehill Primary School was originally a Moravian School but is now a School within the state education system in Northern Ireland, however Gracehill Moravian Church has the right to nominate Church members to act as school governors.