Every December, some people on social media like to make predictions about the year ahead. Usually the forecasts include the death of some royalty, a political scandal and probably in recent years the premonition of some large retail chain’s collapse. As far as I can tell from my brief searching, no one was expecting a global pandemic.
I’ve no idea how much preparation the typical government makes for such an eventuality, but I can forgive a few errors as it tries to tackle it because I know I’ve made plenty of mistakes over the past few weeks. So if this weekend’s announcement by Michael Gove of a change of plan for free school meals over Easter turns out to be accurate, then I’m happy with that; if the government has reflected on its first decision it made and changed its plans, well, welcome to the club.
When we returned after the February half-term, I was still in two minds about the practicalities of constant handwashing in school. The challenge of getting 300 children to wash their hands several times a day in a building with a limited number of sinks seemed a tall order. On reflection, the fact that I even hesitated shows how quickly things have changed.
It’s less than a month since I sat down with my leadership team to discuss the possibility of a school closure. I even recall discussing in that meeting my suspicion that we’d be open until Easter, with possibly an extra week or two added to the holidays to tackle the peak of the virus. The national quarantine had just started in Italy, but even then it seemed so distant. We even thought about what teachers might do in school during the closure. I can’t be the only person who imagined finally clearing out a stock cupboard.
Coronavirus: Difficult decisions for schools
Within a week, our plans for communicating our closure became academic, as the prime minister announced closures to the nation, but even then I was naive. We set about sorting out key worker lists, but I didn’t plan for sending staff home en masse; we still imagined everyone being in school for some time yet. But things had changed quickly again. What seemed proportionate on Friday looked like madness by Monday.
The key worker debacle was a hugely stressful time for schools, but I can even forgive that mistake by government (although an apology wouldn’t have gone amiss). Again, I made more mistakes then. At first, I was certain we didn’t need to send work home: we’d take a bit of time to get sorted and then start sharing things online. Looking back, the thought of sending children home empty-handed seems like madness. We managed to sort reading books and pencil cases, but I wish we’d sent home paper, scissors, colouring pencils: all things that can be replaced.
Every step of the way I’ve been making decisions at short notice; some – more by luck than judgement – have turned out to be right, plenty more have been wrong; some I’ve had a chance to correct, others will just have to be chalked up as regrets.
And I won’t be alone in that. It’s tempting to look at what other schools have done and think you’ve got it wrong; in fact, there are plenty of folk online who are happy to tell you you should be doing things differently. But they’re not you; they don’t work in your school; they don’t know your families.
None of us will get this perfectly correct. The word "unprecedented" is starting to feel like a cliché, but there’s a reason we keep using it.
Michael Tidd is headteacher at East Preston Junior School in West Sussex. He tweets @MichaelT1979