Coronavirus: 8 tips from closed international schools

With many international schools already closing their doors, Tes has spoken to those in charge to see if best practice amid the crisis is emerging

A school closed during to Coronavirus

International schools around the world were among the first to close owing to the coronavirus outbreak, and so are ahead in their experience of what being closed actually means for teaching, learning and wellbeing. 

But that does not mean they cannot learn from each other and that others in non-international schools cannot learn from them. 

We have compiled their experience here so that key lessons can be learned. 

1. Closed does not always mean ‘closed’ 

The word ‘lockdown’ has suddenly become a commonly used word in global education. But current school closures appear to be on something of a spectrum.

Some have closed to students only, with staff coming in for at least part of the day. Some are allowing senior students who are preparing for exams to have limited access to sessions on campus.

“We took a strong decision early on for our staff to come into school for part of the working week,” says Matt Seddon, deputy head at Kellett School in Hong Kong.

“What we hoped to achieve was a collective support for each other and to enable our many teams to work together in an efficient way.

"In terms of students, we have received special dispensation from the Education Bureau to have final examination students on campus for small group tutorials until lunchtime. This has been invaluable.”

Of course, some countries will be applying strict rules on school opening, and those must be adhered to. However, where legislation is more advisory, schools are taking different approaches.

Oliver Ireland, assessment coordinator at the New English School in Kuwait, explains that his staff were offered the chance to stay at home while some became stranded further afield.

“Due to the half-term holiday, many of our teachers were abroad at the time of the school closure announcement,” he explains.

“They were told to stay away if they felt strongly that it was the right thing to do. Most did just this so, as an example, we are currently managing with five out of our seven Year 5 teachers working remotely from the UK, Netherlands and Australia.”

If you do choose to keep school open to a degree, leaders are taking measures to limit the chance of any contamination.

Sanitisers and cleaning materials are a given, but keeping doors open and only using limited entry points and spaces are one way Ben Keeling’s school has managed operations.

“Minimising the number of points of entry and the volume of spaces in active use will allow you to best control the flow of movement,” says Keeling, principal at Shrewsbury International School in Hong Kong.

“Cleaning teams will thank you for this. Selected doors can also be pinned back to limit handrail contact.”

2. Managing communications

As important as managing the spread of a virus is managing the spread of anxiety that comes with it. Pandemics can quickly cause hysteria and getting the right information across in the right way is key.

“We have made a conscious effort to produce video messages to our community, which can often convey a more personal, empathetic connection than letters,” says Seddon.

“Our senior school pastoral leaders have been reaching out to every family and phoning them to see how we can better support them. This proactive approach to connect has been really valued.”

As well as school-related matters, one principal from a school in Italy (who wishes to remain anonymous) explains that international teachers were also being briefed on health policy and country-specific information.

“We've been translating and interpreting the decrees from the Italian government. I think that this has been particularly stressful for international teachers,” she said.

3. The school day

From the majority of schools Tes spoke to, it seems they are trying to replicate the existing school day as much as possible.

Lessons are being conducted remotely using a range of software with online support where needed.

“Teachers are expected to be online and answer questions and queries in real time during their lessons,” says the principal from Italy. “Students are expected to complete tasks in ‘class time’. We have almost 100 per cent attendance to these sessions and anyone who is not logged on is counted as absent, with middle-school parents being contacted for any unexcused absences.”

That said, Michael McNeill-Martinez, a head of house at Rome International School, explains how teachers have been enabled to be flexible with their schedules.

“We have been instructed to follow our normal work schedule and be available for the class hours that we normally teach,” he says.

“Although many of us might have free periods during the day, teachers are responding to students throughout the course of the day, no matter the time, as students have never been in this position before.”

A degree of flexibility has been reported in almost all closed schools, with staff, parents and students adapting to the new environment.  

Seddon explains how his school, in an effort to reduce screen time for senior students, has rescheduled teaching so that lessons requiring instruction or direct contact with staff are now in the morning. In the afternoon, there is time for reading, PE or project work.

“This has the advantage of helping our exam students, who have dispensation to come on campus, to see all of their teachers before lunchtime,” says Seddon. “For students in other years, we are providing more flexibility in the afternoon.”

As well as limiting screen time for students, Jennie Devine, principal at St Louis School in Milan, explains how it’s important to ensure staff don’t overstretch themselves.

“During the first four days of online learning, teachers were extremely responsive and felt that every comment or query had to be dealt with immediately as they were committed to making the online learning a success.

“However, this led staff to feeling exhausted after being chained to the computer for several hours a day,” she explains. “We are trying to create tasks where students can them do in the real world, and trying to create opportunities for teachers to get off the computer.”

Devine goes on to note that tasks were taking early years and primary students longer to complete when done remotely.

“This has meant totally new approaches to planning and content to ensure that we deliver objectives in a timely manner,” says Devine. “We have had to bear in mind that students may not have certain tools or supplies with them.

“Though this approach to planning has been time consuming, it has led to dynamic lessons and creative problem solving by the staff.”

Seddon also recognises that remote learning is taking students longer than it would in a physical classroom.

“We are currently not setting ‘homework’ for key stage 3. We have found that 50 minutes in a normal lesson translates to longer at home, and so we have scaled back on additional work,” he explains.

4. Adopting new tech

While some schools already use a number of tools to facilitate remote learning, others have had to upskill quickly. As well as the functionality of the software, the logistics and practicalities of having students logging in from home need to be carefully considered.

“As a Google school, already using Google Classroom and the other associated G-Suite apps has been a real godsend,” says Ireland. 

“This has also kept all school-pupil-parent contact on one platform, which helps to secure the data of all stakeholders. As of next week, many secondary classes are expanding to use Zoom video conferencing software to deliver some of their lessons.”

As well as using Google, the anonymous leader in Italy has combined this range of software with the video conferencing app Bluejeans.

“For Bluejeans, we have found it really useful as we can also have password protected meetings to address any child protection concerns. We insist that students log in to classroom via school emails and we are very strict about kicking people off.

“Teachers take an initial register in the morning live via Bluejeans. The students go to Google Classroom to complete the work according to the collapsed timetables.”

McNeill-Martinez is also familiar with online platforms, but encourages leaders to offer structured support for teachers who may not be so digitally competent.

“Teachers that are not as tech savvy should definitely reach out to colleagues or find a way to shift their curriculum online as seamlessly as possible. If that transition for a teacher is rough and they seem more analogue than digital, students will become confused and/or frustrated.” 

Devine says she was surprised to find that even “self-proclaimed technophobes” have risen to the challenge of online provision since it became clear it would be required. However, the availability of technology for some students has been an issue.

With teachers and students having to log on remotely, this has caused problems in some households, where staff and their children are all being asked to participate in lessons. This would require multiple devices, not to mention the space to use them.

“We have supplied extra laptops so that teachers can use them at home (especially if they have children, as the children will also be using laptops for school,” says Devine. “Students are accessing on their home technology. This has caused a bit of competition for devices in some homes.

“It also meant that, for the first few days, we had to deal with issues such as elderly grandparents trying to get to grips with the technology and families who were up in the mountains skiing without their computers.”

Popular online teaching tools

5. The practicalities of remote learning

Once the technology has been rolled out, you need to be clear on how you expect students to use it. Teaching remotely requires adjustments in etiquette and a slightly different set of behaviour problems, as the principal in Italy explains.

“In retrospect, we should have shared certain expectations with students beforehand,” she explains. “A few students were ‘attending classes’ lying down in bed. We put a stop to that immediately but it is worth reminding students that they are in school.

“The exact format of each lesson depends on the subject, content and teacher, but there is a live conference to take register and either the teacher proceeds to teach live content (via slide sharing, document cameras, etc) or to direct students to pre-recorded lectures and content.”

“Bluejeans is a little tricky with the littler ones as they all want to talk at the same time, but we have managed to get them used to raising their hands.”

For Ireland, engagement with remote learning has been good, at around 80 per cent, but there are concerns that the 20 per cent are potentially students who are already struggling.

“Of course, this raises some significant concerns about the academic material that we will be able to cover effectively,” says Ireland. “Especially with most private schools in the Middle East working to an already shortened academic year, with Ramadan looming in mid April.”

“There are already rumours from MPs that the cabinet is discussing ending the academic year early, and ratifying the mid-term exam results as the end-of-year grades. I have no idea how that will impact private schools.

"For the pupils, this means they will miss over a third of the academic year, along with a third of the curriculum content. This is bound to have far-reaching impacts on pupil progress in the coming years.”

Keeling also advises taking special precaution with those who might be especially disadvantaged during a period of closure.

“Consider the unique pressures placed upon those currently receiving additional academic support and anyone identified within your safeguarding register,” he suggests. “Also, consider parents under financial pressure and staff members with young children.”

6. Safeguarding and data

Having students working remotely, many of whom will be using their own computers, could potentially cause problems when it comes to data protection.

Largely, leaders have been using tools that require secure login using a school email.

“We sign up for apps and tech using our Google suite school addresses,” says Seddon. “This covers us from a data perspective (alongside our home-school agreement).

“We take the same approach to one-to-one video conferencing as we would to any necessary one-to-one conversation with a student; door open, another colleague nearby and aware.”

McNeill-Martinez has also seen students continue to use software they are already familiar with, minimising the disruption and ensuring there are no breaches when it comes to sensitive data.

“All of our work is done via email and Google Classroom, which can only be accessed via a personalised school email address. Without that, nothing can really be accessed. Students are using personal computers, as our school doesn't have a 1:1 program for students. We have laptops at school, but those strictly stay at school.”

7. Impacting exams

While Seddon has given his exam students licence to come on to campus, in other countries there will legislation that will make this impossible.

If that is the case, the disruption to revision sessions prior to final exams will undoubtedly have an impact.

Whether the exams themselves are in jeopardy is still unclear, but McNeill-Martinez has concerns about how upcoming IGCSE and IB oral exams will be handled.

The IB has extended coursework deadlines for countries impacted by the outbreak, while examining body Pearson have also extended deadlines.

8. Maintaining connections

With teachers isolated at home, and many stuck in destinations away from the school campus, maintaining a sense of connection with colleagues is hard. But from a wellbeing perspective, it’s essential to ensure staff can communicate and still feel like a team.

“We are holding virtual meetings – initially it was troubleshooting and implementation but now it is more checking in and retaining that sense of community and common purpose, says Devine.

“We set up Google Drive and docs to collaboratively work and we have just set up a virtual coffee break and an afternoon group exercise session. I think our main concern is just getting everyone offline as much as we can.”

Seddon explains that keeping students connected is also important, and facilitates daily tutor time sessions via video conference, as well as having heads of house call families to ensure a personal touch.

"We also held a virtual ‘open mic’ session with students performing from their own homes. Hundreds tuned in to watch. We have only just begun to scratch the surface of how we can help our students to feel connected, but our staff are enjoying coming up with creative new ways each day.”

McNeill-Martinez and his colleagues have been using technology to create virtual networks, and communicate in real time, as well as commenting within Google Classroom.

However, one connection that has been more complicated has been the one formed with brand new students.

“We have rolling admissions, and have admitted students within the last week or two who are now having to adjust to a ‘new school’ situation in a strictly digital way.”

For the latest on how the outbreak is effecting schools visit the Tes live blog

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Latest stories