MU research highlights concerns of primary school principals linked to COVID-19

Thursday, May 28, 2020 - 10:30

Maynooth University has published research looking at how primary school principals have adapted to school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.This survey of over 900 primary school principals is a follow up to a study conducted in March which looked at how primary school principals were adapting to the initial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, and identified support requirements at primary level. The research conducted in March also examined how school leaders were coping in the adverse conditions created by the pandemic.


During this round of research, primary school principals reported that for pupils, a key issue has been the loss of social interaction with friends, and the worry that they might miss out on the acquisition of key knowledge and have to repeat a year. Sixth class students are very concerned about the transition to second level. The research found similar concerns among school leaders who are concerned about how to welcome a new class of junior infants, how existing 6th class students will transition to secondary and more generally, how their special education needs pupils and their families are coping with the impacts of the pandemic.
Principals reported that parents are also concerned, particularly for the social and mental wellbeing of their children with some reporting that their children are suffering anxiety due to not being in school. Parents are concerned at their ability to teach and parent at the same time, and they are particularly worried about academic progress, especially in mathematics and Irish.
The research also looked at the impact of the pandemic on the wellbeing of principals. It found that principals are adapting to the impacts of the pandemic, both professionally and personally, however there have been significant challenges noted. It was noted that social wellbeing is the biggest challenge for principals, however seven out of 10 principals have taken specific actions to address this challenge during the lockdown. Lack of time was an issue for those principals who have not taken positive action regarding their wellbeing, with some fulfilling multiple professional and personal roles.

Guidance Required

The research found that primary principals and teachers are eager for guidance from the Department of Education and Skills on several points. Approximately 25% (over 200) of school leaders need guidance concerning the reopening of schools in September, on logistics and other associated issues as soon as possible. Principals also require guidance on how they should address end-of-year reporting for the current academic year.
While there have been challenges associated with the adaptation and implementation of new online practices, and some schools lack technology, there has been a positive move to online learning. This adaptation was noted in increasing levels of pupil communication. Two weeks after the closure, three out of 10 schools contacted pupils daily or every other day. Two months after the closure, this number has increased to seven out of 10.
Dr Majella Dempsey, Assistant Professor at Maynooth University Department of Education commented: “We presented a report on how our primary schools were coping after two weeks of school closure due to COVID-19 (Burke and Dempsey 2020) and now we have a follow up after two months. A lot has changed with schools now carrying out distance teaching and are in regular contact with parents and pupils. This rapid response should be celebrated and is a testament to the strong ethos of care and the highly professional principals and teachers that underpin and support our education system.

“There are however young people who are not flourishing at this time, those who do not have the home support or technology to engage, the pupils with special educational needs that cannot be met by distance teaching and the young people who come from difficult home situations.

“The most cited concern by principals, parents and pupils in this report is the need for social connection with friends, teachers and communities. Young people are exhibiting signs of increased anxiety and poor mental health the longer they are kept out of school. They miss school.

“The research shows that primary school principals and teachers are in in need of guidance from the Department of Education and Skills, an important finding that impacts schools all across Ireland.”
Dr Jolanta Burke, Chartered Psychologist, Assistant Professor at Maynooth University Department of Education stated: "It is not easy to sustain wellbeing during the COVID-19 lockdown when our personal liberties have been restricted. Yet, our research shows that despite principals reporting to struggle, they have managed to maintain their psychological and emotional wellbeing, which allows them to keep going and to lead their teachers and pupils towards the long-awaited end of the school year.
“It is also great to know that over 70% of schools are now engaging with their students every day or every other day, and all others, on a weekly or fortnightly basis. We are very impressed to see how quickly and effectively teachers have adapted to delivering their classes via distance and/or online learning. This rapid adaptation, following a steep learning curve for both pupils and teachers, should never be underestimated." 

About the research

In total, 939 participants completed the survey, available here, which was conducted by Maynooth University. Majority of the respondents were from mainstream school (n=699, 74%), followed by mainstream with special classes (n=207, 22%) and special schools (n=33, 6%). Most of the participants were administrative principals (n=407, 43%), followed by teaching principals (n=313, 33%), teaching deputy principals (n=194, 21%), and administrative deputy principals (n=22, 2%).