Children missing out on after-school activities during Covid restrictions

Young dancers and performers unable to ‘do their thing’ during Covid restrictions

It's an early start on Saturday mornings for the Mic Síomóin family in Co Meath, who are due at the Royal Irish Academy of Music (RIAM) on Dublin's Westland Row by 9am where all five children take lessons in various instruments.

When they head home at 3.30pm, Jennifer and Matt Mic Síomóin like to remind Clara (11), Maitiú (nine), Oscar (eight), Dáire (seven) and Rossa (six) how lucky they are that they can continue their music sessions for now during this pandemic.

Indeed, they are fortunate that music is their thing. For many other children, who enjoy, say, dance, drama, fitness classes and science, activity has long stopped or been greatly curtailed – or gone online, depriving them of the vital social aspect.

Jennifer was reminded of the importance of this sense of connection and collaboration when orchestral playing in sections resumed recently for some of her children at the Junior RIAM.


“They were different children when they came out – a pep in their step. They got to enact a really important part of how they define themselves again, which they had been missing for a while.”

She believes children place a different value on the continuation of their extracurricular activities than they do with school.

“They are all going to school but with those extracurricular activities, it is what they have chosen to do and it could be what they are good at. When those kinds of activities can continue through difficult times, they get to stay in touch with what they value about themselves.”

A 2016 study by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), which tracked 8,500 nine year olds through Growing Up in Ireland’s longitudinal research, found that those who attended classes in music, dance or drama, and read frequently, had improved confidence to cope with schoolwork by the age of 13. They were also happier, had reduced anxiety, better academic skills and fewer socio-emotional difficulties.

But Covid has thrown up huge challenges for passionate individuals in towns and villages throughout the country who give children their first taste of pursuits that may become a lifelong love, or even a career. Many schools feel they can no longer host “after-hours” activities and it seems non-sporty children, in particular, are losing out.

However, Junior RIAM is better positioned than most in being able to keep on providing extracurricular activities safely.

"One-to-one teaching is a gift to social distancing," says Deborah Kelleher, director of the RIAM, which is attended by about 1,700 students under the age of 18. Perspex screens are used in brass teaching and there are caps on the trumpets, "but for all the others, because the rooms are so big and there are only two people in the room, it is just normal".

The RIAM hopes to be able to continue in person for as long as schools remain open. While pupils can travel across county borders for music education, teachers offer online tuition to those who cannot come in, for whatever reason, and all musicianship classes are now conducted via Zoom.

In the academy, small groups of recorder players and pre-instrumental classes for the under-eights “are run like a military campaign”, says Kelleher. Choirs have resumed but they’re split into groups, attending alternate weeks for learning repertoire and practising rhythm – without opening their mouths – and then being online at home, “where they can belt away”.

“We were striving and now we are thriving,” is how Kelleher sums up life for the RIAM since March. “The feedback from parents has been very positive because it is a bit of normality in goal-setting.”

The pressure and the uncertainty on the businesses offering these types of classes and courses and camps is huge

Right now, all providers of extracurricular activities can identify with the “striving” but very few are thriving. Even if their activities are permitted to continue, with appropriate Covid-19 safeguards, suitable venues may not be available, or it is no longer viable to operate.

It is always "a huge responsibility to take on other people's children and make sure they are safe at all times", says Emily Manning, editor of Mykidstime, but never so more than during a pandemic. "The pressure and the uncertainty on the businesses offering these types of classes and courses and camps is huge."

There are so many things to consider, from group size to cleaning, “that, unfortunately for the smaller providers, is it worth it?” says Manning. She feels for them because, unlike clubs running underage sport, they don’t have guidance from governing bodies.

There’s great uncertainty for parents too, who wonder are these activities worth the extra exposure to potential Covid-19 risks above and beyond what children face in school.

In March, like every other provider, Rinka founder Sarah Gillespie had to shut its network of movement and wellbeing classes for about 3,000 children across 12 counties. At the time, she says ruefully, they didn't even cancel their Easter camps as they thought it would be sorted by then and "here we are now cancelling Halloween camps".

Rinka programmes were adapted to comply with social distancing and other Covid protocols for 3½ weeks of summer camps and then "I naively thought that September would be plain sailing", she says. They delayed their new terms until September 14th, to give parents the chance to see how things would go with the reopening of schools "and three weeks later, we are back to square one".

Gillespie’s frustration at being closed again under Level 3 restrictions (at the time of writing), while individual training for children’s indoor sports such as gymnastics can continue, is loud and clear in a phone interview from her home in Donegal.

Gymnastics Ireland chief executive Ciaran Gallagher confirms that its full-time "facility operator clubs" can operate within Level 3 for individual training, with a maximum of 50 persons within the facility, while some smaller, voluntary clubs have had to close. But the restrictions are still very difficult, he points out, for a big club such as Douglas Gymnastics Club in Cork, which has 2,000-plus members and would normally have up to 250 young gymnasts in at one time on a Saturday. Under Level 4, all gyms have to close.

How on earth is it okay for them to sit with 30 kids in a classroom and we can't have 10?

Gillespie is not only a chief executive looking at 30 people who will lose their jobs if Rinka can’t operate, but she is also passionate about the benefits she believes children get from these after-school classes.

With a focus on movement, mindfulness and healthy eating, it’s exactly what they need for their mental health and immune systems, she says. “I am so frustrated and infuriated that it is the kids who are being affected here. The argument we keep making is how on earth is it okay for them to sit with 30 kids in a classroom and we can’t have 10?”

Parents were so grateful, both during the summer camps and the first couple of weeks of the new term, that the children were able to be back in that environment again, she says.

It is their thing – the only thing they do – and now it has been taken away

“What a lot of people don’t realise is kids are living – they might not be aware of it – with very anxious mummies and daddies at the minute; they need this outlet more than ever and just to be shut down without any logic… If I thought for one minute that the classes were putting kids at risk, there is obviously no argument.”

It is the non-sporty children who are being affected, she points out. Some children attending Rinka have autism “and it is their thing – the only thing they do – and now it has been taken away”.

Level 3 has also stopped dance in its tracks. Debbie Allen's Dance School in Dundrum, Dublin had waited until the schools were back a couple of weeks before resuming in-person teaching for her 250 students. "I reduced class sizes, marked out the floor and decided to organise classes with not quite as many moving steps."

Now it’s back to Zoom for most of them, although Allen is permitted to train students on a one-to-one basis in her studio. “The children are missing being in a space where they can express themselves fully,” she says. “It’s hard performing in a small space and often the internet lets us down. They have friends in their ballet classes; seeing them on Zoom isn’t the same.”

Parents have been very supportive, she says, and the children have been working hard in difficult circumstances. “They were just so delighted to be back in the studio and couldn’t understand why we had to go back to Zoom. What worries me is how long can their enthusiasm last? We all need to get back into the dance studio.”

Initially, it looked like Level 3 was "curtains" for classes at Karen Hackett's stage school Curtain Call, when they were told no indoor gatherings were permitted.

I feel that anything in the arts-culture bracket has suffered massively with the level rulings that have come out each time

“We were working in pods of up to six at that point and it was working really well,” she says. They had been open in Dublin for only one week – in Malahide and Santry – and in Portlaoise for three weeks before the whole country went to Level 3.

“GAA has been flying because it’s one of the few things that is allowed to happen but not every kid is sporty. It is really unfair to persecute these children because of some blanket rule that covers everything but not properly us. I feel that anything in the arts-culture bracket has suffered massively with the level rulings that have come out each time.”

However, after a week of blanket closures, the governing body that stage school owners set up earlier this year, the Performing Arts Educators Ireland, managed to get clarification about how they could, in fact, continue. "I felt like I had won the Lotto," Hackett says. "The only stipulation was no dance of any kind."

She feels online has not been successful for musical theatre and drama. “We have only discovered since restarting that we actually rely hugely on the magic of the inter-personal class and being in the moment and all of that gets lost in Zoom.”

For many of their 280 students, ranging in age from four to 17, “it’s not just a hobby, it’s their passion”, she says. “As one parent said to me, ‘This is their happy place.’ It was heart-breaking not to be able to see them and not be able to do it – and it was silly as well because it’s such a controlled environment.”

But since Hackett first spoke to The Irish Times, Covid-19 case numbers increased significantly and she has decided to stop in person classes again, personally questioning the risk associated with any unnecessary mixing of people right now.

The Gaiety School of Acting (GSA), which is attended by about 400 children under 18, had planned to be back in person on the first Saturday in October. However, with the move to Level 3, "we felt it would be in the interest of health and safety to resume classes on Zoom, as the children would have been coming to GSA from a variety of different schools, let alone pods," says its head of marketing, Lauren O'Toole.

Drama classes are a proven way for children to express themselves, and now more than ever we feel they need this outlet

While she acknowledges that the “liveness” of the physical presence of students in the classroom is missed, “our tutors have been teaching online with the full-time students since March and so have developed really creative and innovative ways of teaching performance skills through a screen”. But it’s the social aspect of the drama classes that children are missing out on.

“Many children come to GSA to boost their confidence and to find like-minded creative souls who share the same interests.” While Zoom allows for some degree of this, many students regard the school as a second home, and the tutors as important mentors in their lives.

“Drama classes are a proven way for children to express themselves,” she adds, “and now more than ever we feel they need this outlet.”

As a mother of three and founder of Junior Einsteins science clubs, Tracey Jane Cassidy believes there needs to be a balance between avoiding Covid-19 cases rising and ensuring children feel "normal" in their learning environment. She is feeling the weight of responsibility to keep children safe.

“The onus on business owners is huge and I know there are many out there having the same sleepless nights.” Having switched to online webinars for primary school children in March, the company has since invested heavily in ensuring a safe environment for in-person events.

“Of course, we still do lots of online but we are also doing in-person events within HSE and Government guidelines, which means mostly outdoor and with very restricted numbers.”

Demand is “huge” because “parents and schools are doing their best to have the children active, learning and happy during a stressful time in their lives”, she says.

“Children need our Stem activities more than ever after the unnatural isolation of lockdown. We can clearly see the anxiety and strain on children’s mental health when they are kept from socialising and learning with other children.”

After-school science clubs are being run “in many, but not all of our regular schools”, she adds. “We adhere to strict safety protocols; we are scientists after all!”

The Pine Forest Art Centre, perched as it is on the side of a mountain valley in Glencullen, Co Dublin, is exactly the sort of setting parents want children to be able to enjoy but many of its activities have been suspended too. School groups can no longer visit and its outreach classes have been paused because those schools have stopped all "out-of-hours" activities.

But one silver lining, reports centre manager Katie Long, is that “we spent the lockdown upping our game online” and now sell craft kits based on some of the most popular Pine Forest activities. These have been in great demand, she says. For example, “one enterprising Girl Guide leader bought 20 kits and used them to run an online activity with her group via Zoom”.

Many of the volunteer leaders with Irish Girl Guides (IGG) switched to online meetings last March, says chief executive Claire Barkey. But since September, "many units are now holding outdoor meetings with age-appropriate activities, like teddy bear picnics and scavenger hunts for younger girls and cookouts, hikes and campcraft skills for older girls".

The girls are still able to earn their badges, doing the same kinds of activities but in different ways, she adds, and are continuing to develop resilience and other essential life skills, “which are more important now than ever”.