'It's humbling to work with the people still in school'

Coronavirus means these are dismal times in schools, says Stephen Petty – but one positive is the dedication of staff

Coronavirus: Teachers are unable to answer students' questions, writes Stephen Petty

Until recently, children have touchingly assumed that I know “everything”.

Sadly, that illusion has been well and truly shattered in the past week or so. I have now lost count of how many times in lessons I have had to respond with “I don’t know”.  

Is the school going to close?” “I don’t know.”

Will exams happen?” “I don’t know.” 

“How long is this going to last for?” “I don’t know.”

“Why is Mr Arbuthnott away? Is he self-isolating?” “I don’t know. Hard to tell, as he hasn’t got any friends anyway.” (Mr A is a good friend, and would be equally rude about me.) 

The only thing I do still “know” for definite is that the number of staff able to come into school will continue to dwindle each day. Our cover organiser’s polite requests have become increasingly urgent and desperate each morning.  

Selfless school staff still working amid coronavirus oubreak

One of many amazing, selfless colleagues here has an unfortunate habit of unwittingly hitting “reply all” when he responds to emails, including those addressed to the entire staff. So he was genuinely unaware that we could all see his reply to the cover organiser this week, who was asking for any extra volunteers, as she had run out of options. 

It is genuinely quite humbling to work with some of the people here. He had immediately replied: “I can start off my Year 12s and then cover that Year 11 class for period one if needed. I’m also available period three. Give me some nice Year 7s? Ready, willing, able. Keep smiling. Keep in touch.” 

Despite the growing shortage of staff, normal lessons do still currently outweigh the cover lessons. 

Well, they are still “normal” on the surface. There is something slightly weird about many lessons now. It’s almost as if we are all playing a role. They and I are delivering the same kind of script as usual, because all of us seem willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of keeping some degree of order and continuity in our life.

But young minds naturally wander and wonder more than usual. I can see it in their faces. Some voice in the classroom eventually breaks through the shallow surface and asks, again, whether the school is going to close. “I don’t know.”

But the tone of that question has generally changed from major to minor over the past couple of weeks. The early snow-day excitement and exuberance in their voice has usually faded.  

Emotions simmering beneath the surface

All manner of additional emotions are now simmering just beneath the surface in that classroom, sometimes within the same young mind. 

There are, undoubtedly, still a fair number of children avowedly thrilled at the thought of school closing. However, many more are worried to varying degrees – over the threat to the health of particular family members, for their parents’ jobs and over the many bleak apocalyptic stories they see on their phones. 

In the case of most exam students, it’s also the prospect of missing lessons, of being ill for their exams or of exams perhaps not even happening at all. 

These are undoubtedly bleak and dismal days. Nothing can even begin to compensate for what is happening. 

However, if schools do eventually close, it may at least speed up the ponderous rate at which we embrace the future and develop more online teaching and learning.

I might even get round to video-teaching some lessons, though at the moment I struggle even to Skype my own mother. (Not sure my students will get out of bed just to hear my customary repeats of “I can see you but I can’t hear you.”)

I know that’s a relatively tiny positive right now. But maybe we have to look for these little seeds of hope for the future, amid the potentially overwhelming misery. What is the alternative?

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams' School in Thame, Oxfordshire

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