'Coronavirus has closed our school for a month'

With his pupils off school in Hong Kong due to the coronavirus threat, Matt Seddon has had to try to keep them learning

Coronavirus outbreak: One deputy head at an international school in Hong Kong explains how his school is coping after being forced to close as a precaution

“School is closed, owing to inclement weather.” 

Do you remember the joy those words created for you as a child? School was shut and you were free to head out and play. Most teachers, of course, also secretly love an impromptu day off school. 

Unfortunately, “School’s shut” is not currently conjuring the same emotions in Hong Kong. 

The international schools in Hong Kong are going through an unprecedentedly turbulent time. 

As our community began to reflect on the impact of the coronavirus spreading through Asia and beyond, we received news of the government’s decision to close all schools for a minimum of four additional weeks after the Chinese new year because of concerns for student safety.

The threat of coronavirus

As with a snow day, many of our students and staff may at first have been delighted to receive news of extra days off. 

The dawning reality, however, is very different. The atmosphere in Hong Kong reflects the seriousness of the situation. The prolonged period away from school is causing growing anxiety in our community, especially around forthcoming examinations

Enforced closures are difficult for any affected community. For schools in Hong Kong, which were also affected by the recent protests, the current situation provides a significant challenge. 

I would like to share a number of the key lessons that we are learning through this experience. 

Learning from experience

1. Technology supporting learning

It is clear that technology has reached a level that now enables high-quality learning at home. 

Virtual learning environments are truly interactive, and ours is really coming into its own during this period. 

The range of brave, creative and imaginative ways in which our staff are using this technology is inspirational. It provides consistency for our students and parents, ensuring that each day has a clear learning outcome and that two-way dialogue is easily available for every subject.

Video conferencing is being used effectively to teach examination classes “face to face”, creating an opportunity for our students to work alongside their teacher and fellow classmates in an environment that closely resembles their normal classroom.

Cloud-based computing allows students to access their assignments and revision notes wherever they have internet access. Teacher feedback is easily provided without the need to see their books. I suspect that our experience here may have a big impact on the way we think about marking in the future. 

There is no doubt that we enjoy great advantages in terms of access to technology as an international senior school, with one-to-one laptops. However, we have really been thrown in at the deep end in terms of testing their extended use.

The opportunities that we are seeing are exciting, and are easily transferable to phones and tablets. 

2. Continual professional learning

An unpredicted side effect of extended closure is that, without prompt or steer, our staff instinctively turned to the richest form of professional learning: each other. 

Colleagues who are proficient at podcasting are teaching others how to design and create podcasts. Others champion screen recordings or are narrating presentations and uploading them as videos. 

Advocates for flipped learning are sharing their expertise with those who have never tried it before, finding new and innovative ways to spark the discussion and deepen learning from their stimulus pieces. 

The range of expertise that exists within our faculty is evident, and word is quickly spreading on who the “go to” people are to upskill one another.  

3. The importance of the human touch

We cannot currently put our students together, face to face with their teachers. This is out of our control. 

But we can do our best to create situations that will provide much-needed pastoral care for our students during difficult times.

Our form tutors are striving to meet their class every day, via video conference, to check in on their home learning, and to provide that important smile of reassurance. They are encouraging our students to try to understand and reflect upon the situation we are in, and the impact it is having among the people of Hong Kong.

Our pastoral leaders are reaching out to our families, to see how we can best support them. Our senior leaders are doing the same among our staff. 

This personal touch is a key difference between a school and an online learning environment. We must understand our communities and prioritise excellent relationships. 

This personal touch also encourages care and compassion for one another during difficult times, and is as true for staff-to-staff relationships as it is between staff and students. We are all responsible for one another’s wellbeing

Early takeaways

So, what are our early takeaways? 

Technology is a driving force for supporting learning while challenging the traditional role of the teacher and encouraging us to think differently. 

Staff pulling together and pooling skills will always be central to progressive professional development. Our students need and value the personal pastoral care that we provide, as a backbone to their education. 

As the debate over the future of education continues, we must never lose sight of the vital role that our schools play in social and emotional development. This is so critical in helping our children to become the adults who will shape our future.

Our response is by no means a perfect one – quite the contrary. We are learning each day throughout this uncertain time. 

However, the final lesson that I want to share is that there is no such thing as a perfect response. Mistakes will be made, but we are progressing so much as a community and learning together.

Harnessing the momentum

Some key challenges lie ahead for us. We must find a regular platform to harness the momentum gained from our shared professional learning. 

We must create more opportunities to train staff in alternative teaching methods, to ensure greater confidence. We must find better ways to extend our pastoral care into the home. 

We need to continue to push technological boundaries safely to support learning. We must be clear in our communication to our community about our future plans – because they rely on our reassurance in times like these.

Finally, we must always remember that our role as educators is really appreciated by our students and parents. 

A colleague received the following line in an email from one of our parents this week. “I am ever mindful of the fact that all of you teachers put yourselves and your families at risk by remaining in HK, and I thank you for that. Stay well, and we hope this situation is resolved soon.” 

We are valued within our community – and this is never more evident than in times of crisis. They know that we will do the very best job we can, and they are incredibly grateful to us for that. 

Matt Seddon is deputy head of senior school (house and pastoral) at Kellett School , a British international school in Hong Kong

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