Coronavirus: 3 tips for surviving school closures

In week one of distance learning, it's exciting - but there will more challenges ahead, writes one head on week eight

Mark Steed

Coronavirus: How to handle school closures

Last week, the UK Twittersphere was awash with the excited first fruits of home learning.

Students, teachers and schools have been posting pictures of diligent children sitting at the kitchen table, screenshots of their Year 8 class in a Zoom lesson, and photos of PE teachers writing work-out videos.

Parents even joined in with the occasional “Suddenly have a whole new respect for #teachers – Good Grief [crying emoji] #homeschooling @mychildschool”

This is the natural euphoria of week one – it is all novel, interesting, different. Exciting even. Teachers around the country once again are showing their resourcefulness, resilience and professionalism.

But give it three weeks…

Coronavirus: How to handle the school closures

In Hong Kong, we are now in week eight of distance learning, with no prospect of reopening any time soon. So here is my advice to those of you just starting out. 

Pace yourselves: it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Distance educating is tough – much harder than teaching with a class in front of you. It takes the teacher much longer to produce a video than to teach a lesson. The preparation and screen time are exhausting. 

The challenge for the teacher is to keep everyone on track. There are always students who require an enormous amount of teacher input and energy to remain on task. They need no excuse to down tools at the best of times, so home learning is like three Christmases coming at once for them. 

Like marathon running, it’s important not to set off too fast. The euphoria of the start will die down, and teachers need to find a pace that allows them to deliver a standard of home learning that is sustainable.

Managing false summits

There is a staff wellbeing issue here. This race has had many false summits – at Kellett, we were first closed for two weeks, then for an additional three, and then for a further five (two of which were the Easter holiday). Each false summit needs managing. 

These are particularly challenging times for school leaders – it’s important to carry people with you at the time when an extension is announced. People need no excuse to drop out at these times. 

There’s also “the wall”: the point at which the parents have just had enough. Supporting home learning is really hard, especially for parents who are trying to work from home themselves.

It’s not just the school closure that is impacting on the parents – the after-school activities and clubs (the sports/dance/music/brownies/cubs) that occupy children outside school are also closed.

Cabin fever is inevitable. Parents will need to vent – and the school is an easy target. So be prepared to manage some understandably frustrated parents, who aren’t getting the service they are used to (and, in the case of fee-charging schools, for which they have paid). 

Three tips for making it to the finishing line

The difficult truth is that the home straight is a long way off for us all, so here are three things that schools can do to help them get to the finishing line in good shape.

1. Build wellbeing activities into the programme

It is understandable to focus in the first week on how to get academic work to students at the expense of the other important work that schools do throughout the year. However, it is particularly important that the school’s pastoral support work continues during this challenging time.

A fortnightly short questionnaire for pupils and staff can allow pastoral teams to take the wellbeing pulse of the community, and to identify individuals who are struggling.

At Kellett, we asked our students to rate their wellbeing on a scale of one to 10. The pastoral teams then followed up with any students reporting a score of four or less.

We have built a range of wellbeing activities into our schedule for both staff and pupils. Our weekly school newsletter contains a mindfulness video and wellbeing tips. We have launched a Kellett student wellbeing-team website, which brings together a range of advice and activities aimed at supporting students and their families. 

2. Be prepared to mix things up

The routine of the school timetable may provide an efficient structure for teachers and students when schools are open. But, by week four, the daily cycle of home learning can feel like Groundhog Day. 

At Kellett, in response to student surveys, we changed our senior-school schedule, moving all of the academic live teaching lessons to the mornings, and our PE., tutorials, house activities and so on to the afternoons. 

Our community has welcomed this, as it struck a balance between providing structure until lunchtime and allowing families flexibility to organise their afternoon schedules – perhaps, for example, taking their exercise together.

In our prep schools, we have put on special days such as a book day or a science day on a Friday, just to break up the routine. 

3. Hold community online events

One of the most difficult aspects of long-term closure is the isolation that it brings. Schools can do their part to bring the school community together, by hosting online events. At Kellett, we started simply by asking everyone to wear red one day and send in photos. 

The prep schools held a “sing-up day”, when everyone joined in singing, and we edited together a video of the event, which was shared with the community.

The senior school held a feelgood Friday open-mic event, with students around the world performing to their peers. We used a mixing desk to bring in multiple feeds, and it went out as a YouTube live broadcast. 

Events such as these take some planning, but they go a long way towards maintaining a sense of community in this most testing of times.

Mark S Steed is the principal and CEO of Kellett School, the British School in Hong Kong, and previously ran schools in Devon, Hertfordshire and Dubai. He tweets as @independenthead 

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