Stay ahead of the game

We may not be able to avoid future school closures, but we can be prepared in managing them, says Ben Evans, headmaster at Windlesham House School

Since we were first forced to close our schools in March, school leaders have not stopped planning for full closure, partial reopening or full reopening and we now find ourselves in very uncertain times yet again. Many schools have had children displaying Covid-type symptoms and also testing positive, which has necessitated isolating whole year groups and sometimes more. This in itself requires a great deal of planning to teach remotely while managing live teaching in school.

It is very unlikely that any school will escape a positive test result, either among pupils, staff or parents, and therefore a number of the school community will need to self-isolate. While the government has given reassurances that school closure will be a last resort, it does seem that we are nearly at this point again.

Time to question everything?

Minimising risk is key for all schools, but with the best will in the world, after six or seven weeks of term and following extremely stringent precautions implemented in September, it is easy for staff and pupils in schools to start to become complacent and less careful. Now is the time for schools to re-examine their risk assessments and Covid-related procedures and precautions to ensure they are fit for purpose.

With infection rates increasing, can more be done in schools to mitigate risk and help them to remain open?

A number of schools have invested in their own testing equipment, be it a machine or testing kits, which can be hugely advantageous in lessening the impact of bubble isolation when children display symptoms such as high temperatures. These testing kits ensure a rapid turnaround for results and, in some cases, less than 30 minutes and thereby avoiding the 72-hour wait for the NHS.

It may also become necessary to increase the use of masks by staff, especially during meetings or when in communal areas. We should be questioning whether face-to-face staff meetings are absolutely essential or could they be held remotely? Perhaps bubbles are at greater risk of mixing, with less careful supervision or if cleaning routines are not rigorous enough? Is it now appropriate to stagger start and end times or perhaps reduce the daily footfall on site by teaching certain year groups remotely in the afternoons on a rota basis?

Should after-school activities be limited only to those that can take place outside? Each school is different and will have a set of unique criteria which will dictate what will work best for them.

All of these aspects of school management need to be revisited and checked they are still fit for purpose and any necessary changes made. Failure to carry out this level of scrutiny could spell disaster for some schools.

Managing behaviours

After five months of absence from schools, parents were extremely happy to see them reopen at the start of term and have generally been very supportive of the health and safety measures in place. There will, of course, always be the odd parent who disagrees with decisions made or is unwilling to support schools in the enforcement of regulations in place. For some heads, this has made a tough job even harder, but no one should become disillusioned. The majority of parents want their children at school where they can learn, succeed, socialise and thrive. To this end, they will help and support schools in their efforts wherever and whenever they can.

For children, their joy at being back at school and chatting and playing with their friends was tangible at the start of term and this enthusiasm and enjoyment of school life has not diminished. It was certainly a case of being a ‘new normal’ for them in terms of being taught in bubbles, restrictions of movement around school, fewer co-curricular and extra-curricular activities, no sports fixtures and an obvious lack of singing in assemblies. However, despite a very different experience in many ways, they have quickly become accustomed to new routines and have understood the reasons behind them.

As with so many aspects of teaching and learning, it has been necessary to explain and reinforce the precautions in place and remind pupils regularly of what they can and cannot do. Most children are naturally gregarious and therefore want to mix. The need to prevent any ‘burst bubbles’ has perhaps been the most difficult aspect to manage in schools, especially at break, lunch and other transition times.

Clear and obvious signage plus regular reminders and modelling of correct behaviours by staff has usually been sufficient to reinforce the importance of social distancing, hand-washing, use of sanitiser and other precautions. For children used to having lots of freedom and acres of grounds to use at breaktimes, the limitations are not always easy but it is important to remind of them of the consequences and that all measures in place are ultimately temporary. There will be an end in sight at some point in the future.

Dealing with closure

School leaders have been in planning mode for months and any future school closure will already have been carefully thought through. Measures will be in place for full remote and blended learning, and teaching staff will know exactly what is expected.

The need to prevent any ‘burst bubbles’ has perhaps been the most difficult aspect to manage in schools

Staff training will have been ongoing and schools equipped with sufficient devices to ensure all pupils are able to learn remotely at home. Lessons will have been logged on Google Classroom and classroom codes freely distributed. Unlike for some schools back in March, all stakeholders will understand how remote learning will work for pupils, parents and staff and will be fully prepared for whatever may come.

Even the most technophobe of teachers will now be au fait (if not completely happy) with the school’s policy on remote learning and how this will work in practice. Schools will have refined their summer term provision, incorporating the best bits, eliminating those that were less successful and ensuring the latest add-ons and extensions to online teaching platforms have been incorporated.

Schools are working hard to ensure pupils are using the latest technology in lessons every day, to allow a seamless transition to remote learning if necessary, and this will include submitting homework tasks and giving feedback. Most importantly, parents will be reassured that they will have a better grasp of the remote learning process and that their children can learn and make progress effectively, even if they are not at school.

Schools will also now see the need to ensure that a good level of pastoral care can be delivered remotely and that children continue to feel connected with the school and an important part of the community, even in prolonged closure. Pupils’ wellbeing and mental health is most definitely something schools cannot ignore and most will have plans in place for a high-quality provision.

Continuity of education

One of the biggest advances schools have made is the ability to deliver blended learning to children of the same class, some of whom may be in school while others could be self-isolating at home. This is essential to ensure that children’s learning continues without interruption and that they are also able to interact with their teachers and peers. Equally important is the ability for teachers who may also be self-isolating at home (but be completely well) to deliver live lessons to pupils who are still at school.

This avoids the need for less than adequate cover for lessons and again ensures that children receive continuity of education. When blended learning is implemented with the correct technology and staff input, it is extremely effective and purposeful. For many school leaders, the thought of having to teach some children in school and others at home and/or manage large numbers of staff absences was quite terrifying in the beginning and possibly worse than the idea of full school closure. Blended learning has alleviated this fear completely.

It goes without saying that any future school closures will undoubtedly affect children’s learning and sustained progress. The absence of collaborative learning, close contact with teachers and socialisation will be detrimental and this cannot be avoided.

However, schools are well-prepared and remote learning provisions will be of a high quality with a sustained focus on pupil wellbeing and mental health. Children will continue to make progress and respond well to teacher feedback. Longer term, they will emerge largely unscathed and it will not affect their future education, progress nor career prospects. Out of all adversity, there are positive outcomes, and as educationalists and parents, we must embrace these and use them to our advantage – however difficult that may seem right now.


W: www.windlesham.com

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