We are approaching the end of possibly the strangest academic year in living memory, providing us with the chance at last to evaluate the events of the past few months. For three of the areas we cover, the year has already finished. Here we reflect on how the situation has transpired for them.
After the longest continuous period of home-schooling across our collaborative communities, our colleagues in Dubai have made it to their summer holidays. The lockdown started with the shunting of spring break at short notice to early March, and home-schooling commencing on March 20. In total, 16 weeks have passed from beginning to end. It’s still a fluid situation, but the indications are that children will return to class as normal when schools reopen in mid-August but with restrictions imposed on physical contact.
The expats amongst the staff have to decide if they can make it home and back safely. Airlines are again operational; restrictions have been reduced and the rate of infection in the UAE is comparatively low. Conditions in their own European country may prove cause for concern and discovering that the UAE is not on the list of countries exempt from quarantine will not help matters.
Above all else, the past few months have proven that communication is sacrosanct for Tammy Downing, principal of Namur Intermediate School, located at the most eastern point of the Quebec School Board. At the beginning of the lockdown, staff made considerable efforts to stay connected with their most vulnerable students. This intensive support resulted in considerable progress, and the success in this area has led to the school rethinking its distribution of staff. Traditionally, experienced staff acted as the class teachers and the inexperienced provided specific support. After the success of their intervention programme, they are now considering reversing these arrangements.
Namur has a student population of 107 aged from Kindergarten to year Eight and serves a small population set over a wide geographical area. Students travel up to 30 kilometres to attend class, with many from disadvantaged families. The social deprivation rating here is a full 10/10, the highest possible. In addition, the majority of students are French speaking and go to school to learn English. There are 12 teaching staff and the same amount of support staff, who have been involved in the NANS project with Ruth Ahern and her team at the Board since its inception.
Tammy reported that staff and students had been very anxious about returning to school but once there, had quickly adapted. However, for many parents, technology for home-schooling proved a challenge and classes were arranged in the school car park to help bring them up to speed. The car park was also used to hold a drive-through leavers’ ceremony. Of 63 anticipated vehicles, 58 turned up, which they felt was a fitting celebration for students in the circumstances.
David McFall, principal of Pierre Elliott Trudeau Elementary School (PETES), has put the relatively smooth return to school for his staff and pupils down to methodical planning. Staff and students quickly adapted to social distancing in and outside the classroom, clear markings with arrows and boundaries were drawn and a balance was found between being inside and outside the school. The latter has helped with the flow of the day, with an emphasis on outdoor learning and play time.
PETES is located in downtown Hull and the school is in high demand, with 560 students and limited space. Doors reopened on May 12, with only 40 students returning in the first week. By week seven, this attendance had doubled to 96 students, meaning that 18 per cent of the school population was back on site. Of the 65 staff, 50 returned to work in the building and 15 worked from home.
The most challenging aspect of reopening the school was the uncertainty of how many students and staff would return. They determined that there would be between eight and 8 10 students per classroom and even though it went against their philosophy, students with severe special needs were temporarily grouped together in special classes to ensure the physical safety of all. The concerns of physical safety in the building created a desire for teachers to take students outside.
With the government insisting that online learning between May 11 and June 23was optional and there was to be no ‘new learning” or ‘new evaluations’, only consolidation of learning, the impact remains debatable. Valuable lessons have been learnt, however: Zoom and Microsoft Teams have been used with varying degrees of success; online lessons for small groups of students for 15 or 30 minutes’ duration were optimal; when teachers attempted to merge their online students with the physical students in class, it was too distracting to have any meaningful teaching and learning; Teachers who were not experts in online learning adapted very quickly; students were less interested in learning during an online class meeting and more interested in connecting with their teacher and classmates and to counter this, teachers needed to direct the flow of the meeting.
Teachers who worked with students at school and online worked on four fronts: preparing lessons for students who are in the classroom; collaborating with other teachers to align learning; teaching students in-class; and teaching students online.
David feels thatoverall, the return to school in May was a huge success. Students, staff and families were completely safe. In fact, over the seven weeks since they have not suffered from even basic illnesses or colds, which is rather unusual. Perhaps this proves that fewer students in classes, along with regular hand washing and sanitizing, works. He feels that parents struggled with the very difficult decision of choosing to send their children back to school. They heard two common statements since the return to school – “See you in September” and “we’ll return when there is a vaccine”. The main reasons parents gave for sending their children back have been to return to a normal routine, to see their friends, to see their teachers, and that they miss school.
“Upon reflection, our provincial government made the correct decision in reopening schools in areas that had a low number of Covid cases,” David said. “We had an opportunity to return to the building and alleviate any stress and anxiety that staff, parents and students were feeling. We also had an opportunity to try new practices that have made students feel more at peace at school. These include:
- No school bells
- Daily morning outdoor time
- Fewer student transitions between classrooms
- Emphasis on taking the learning outdoors
- Creating an online learning portal / website to support students and families.”
Mats Rosenqvist, CEO of Successful Schools Sweden, reminds us that Swedish schools finished the academic year in the first or second week of June. They did so after getting information from the authorities that all schools and higher education will open up when the new academic year starts after the summer, provided the pandemic situation continues to stabilise. For the play schools, primary schools and secondary schools which have been open throughout the pandemic since March, attendance for both teachers and pupils has varied and been unusually low depending on region, city and school.
After a tough pandemic spring, headteachers and teachers overall seemed to welcome the decision to open and were looking forward to some rest and to gain strength during the summer break – especially those teachers in the upper secondary sector who have had to teach online through spring after Covid-19 hit Sweden hard in March.
Now there are fewer articles about Covid-19 and instead more coverage on specific challenges and the continuing school debate on how to improve the outcome for students. The fact that everyone is looking forward to going back to something that is a bit more like ”normal” is also reflected in newsletters, websites, magazines and other media focusing on education.
For all of the areas we cover, it is evident that we remain in an experimental period with regards the situation we are in. Each school leader is operating equally on instinct and experience and will likely do so into the coming autumn. This has been a learning curve for staff and pupils alike and all will hope that we won’t see a return to the harsh conditions of the past few months.
Although this is one of our longer blogs, we felt it important to capture our colleagues’ thoughts and experiences at the end of what has been for all a very taxing period. As they go on their break, we wish them a good summer holiday and for those still hard at it, we hope you have as calm an experience as possible.
Take care and stay safe