A phased return to school will ultimately cost many students further precious time away from the classroom – a point that is causing considerable division among concerned parties.
Today, June 1, 2020 is a critical day for English primary schools with Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 students due to return under strict guidelines provided by the Department of Education. We wait to see what the take-up will be, with predictions of around 50 per cent attendance overall and 25 per cent for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. If the evidence from the take-up from vulnerable children so far is a guide, the numbers will be the lowest for those who need schooling the most.
The debate over the sense of such a decision has raged for several weeks, dividing experts, trade unions and parents and pitting multi-academy trusts against local authority schools. Over the past week it has reached a crescendo, just as those staff already working flat-out are trying to take a well earned half-term break.
The secondary sector will be watching with interest as they prepare to welcome back Year 10 and 12 students from June 15. The guidance states that only 25 per cent can return at one time. With the guidance being altered from week to week as more evidence becomes available, preparing for this moment is even more stressful. We are sure that our colleagues in Canada will empathise with this situation.
Without this happening, some students will have been without a quality education for more than five months. We already know that their performance declines during the six week summer holiday, therefore it is hard not to be concerned about the impact of this much longer break. When they do return they will have a lot of catching up to do if they are to perform to their potential in public examinations next June.
It’s week three on the voluntary return to school in Quebec and the number of students taking up their place in the Western Quebec School Board (WQSB) are slowly trickling upwards, with a group size of 5.6. With a maximum set by the WQSB of ten, there is still considerable capacity available. The school year finishes on June 23, so there are only a few weeks left before the long break. To plan for the future, the Board is trying to determine what the situation will be when they return in August.
They, like most of the UK have been subjected to a heatwave. One day last week temperatures reached 34C. As they were advised not to put the air-conditioning on for fear of spreading the virus, the Board had to close the schools. However, the schools in the French sector did not. With this action and with the percentage of students in the French sector returning to school much higher than in the English with staff actively encouraging students to return, the contrast between the sectors is marked.
We had a chance to speak to Julie Fran-Grieg, Principal of Wakefield Elementary School whom Richard Lockyer and I have worked with for many years and to hear her first-hand account of re-opening an Elementary school. The school is situated by the Gatineau River. She said that by setting roadblocks to prevent travel between Ottawa and Gatineau and Gatineau and the hinterland, the authorities limited the spread of the virus from one area to another. Hence, the rate of infection in Gatineau was significantly lower than Ottawa.
At her school the number of students taking up the offer of schooling on the premises has been low. However, there has been a considerable increase in the number of staff classified as vulnerable. This now stands at 25 per cent and is often due to child and parental care issues. Regardless of whether staff have returned or stayed away, their wellbeing requirements, though different, remain onerous. In this tense environment it’s the little things that affect you. For example, telling a parent that they cannot send their child to school at 9.30am even though they have an important engagement – the protocols state it is 8.30am or not at all.
On the upside, with the low student numbers, she and her team have taken the opportunity to establish firm protocols for this type of schooling. Staff are in teams of three, with one ‘teaching,’ another providing cover when needed and the third off-site. This way they are able to separate student bubbles from a staff bubble.
The education system continues with its homeschooling. Eid-ul-Fitr has now passed and restrictions on movement have been further cautiously relaxed. That is unless you are under 12 or over 60, where most of these changes do not apply. With an economy reliant upon a large aviation and tourist industry, reducing restrictions on movement and returning to some kind of normality is essential. Also with a large expat population, the ability to get home if they wanted to for the summer holidays would be welcomed.
Lesley Stagg, Senior Adviser, reports that in Jersey all of the schools have remained open for vulnerable children and those of essential workers. Leaders have organised a rotating teams approach to ensure sufficient personnel are always available. A central hub has been established to help monitor attendance, student needs and to rapidly deploy staff where needs are greatest. Maintaining social distancing is a priority for the protection of staff, as well as children, and they have set a maximum capacity of one-sixth of the regular student population per school.
As a result, because of the demographics of some schools, especially those supporting key workers’ children or vulnerable youngsters, they are almost at capacity. Where needed, schools remained open during the Easter holiday fortnight and during the half term break to serve their communities. Lesley said staff members have been amazing, with many volunteering to work uncompensated during the school breaks and school leaders have kept their schools open from 07:00 until 19:00 to meet the needs of workers.
There is a great emphasis on taking care of all Jersey employees in terms of both physical and mental health. Systems have been established so that staff members can self-refer for help and assistance with a multitude of questions to be answered and issues to be resolved. Daily updates direct people to where they can seek help and advice.
As we publish this blog, Jersey schools are waiting to be informed by the Minister if they are to re-open to all students. The date of June 8th has been mooted in the press. The first in a series of Government videos offering advice on a Safe Return to School has been published here.
We were contacted by an ex-colleague who wanted to be clear about the difference between system and systemic leadership. This difference is not shared across the educational community but it is the one we have used in our Theory of Action. System leadership is carrying out the tasks required by law. Systemic leadership is about working beyond this. In failing schools, the focus is purely of system leadership – ensuring that the school meets the requirements of OFSTED and the law. In outstanding schools the system leadership is in place and run effectively so that additional leadership capacity can focus upon inspiring, facilitating and driving the performance of the whole community toward excellence.
In the current situation as schools contemplate reopening, all the emphasis is upon system leadership – following guidelines to ensure that students and staff can return to school safely. Take care and stay safe.