Many Malaysian schools – particularly those within red-zone districts – have been closed since the beginning of October.
We had hoped, after the first lockdown ended, that we would be able to return to teaching in class for the rest of the year. How wrong we were; we only returned as a full campus for eight weeks, from June to October, before having to close again.
As such, when we gathered leaders around the table in October, we set about outlining how we could improve distance-learning structures for this new lockdown – after all, it is clear that we could not just do enough to “get by” until we were back in the classroom again.
We reviewed the evidence from the first closure and we identified a number of areas to improve, with a key focus on improving behaviour for learning and student engagement. We discussed at length how we could improve learning behaviours and clarify our new language.
From this, we developed a 10-point strategy – The Tenby Ten – that outlined our core learning principles. These all come under our three “golden rules” that I think translate well to any school facing the same reality at present or in the future.
1. Clarify engagement expectations
Cameras, workspace guidance and uniform expectations needed clarity to support clearer school expectations within the home.
During the first lockdown, it was new, and we were managing the basics rather than the acute details. Some behaviours were not clarified in the beginning by the whole community, but this became more important as time went on. The sharing of these ideas led to development of our Code of Conduct for Online Learning.
After the second lockdown started, we noticed that parents and staff wanted an increase in learning expectations. We also noticed that more parents were working away from home and back in the office.
This meant that behaviours were not being reinforced as much the second time around, so clarifying and re-clarifying new expectations with parents, students and staff was important.
2. Be busy learning, not just busy
The first time around, we were trying to get learning up and running, upskilling teachers, getting systems online and ensuring standard operating procedures and safeguarding were being followed. And for aspects such as lesson visits and continuing professional development, it took time for new ways of working to be established.
However, the second time around, we wanted to ensure learning and progress were more of a focus.
A key element was students, staff and parents taking more ownership of students' progress to ensure they were on a good learning path. Supporting teachers with online assessment tools and developing student feedback mechanisms became another key component.
We developed other systems, such as distance-learning appraisal for staff, and created an online classroom visit programme to ensure staff received feedback but, more importantly, felt supported.
3. Care for each other
During the first lockdown, we noticed some families and students becoming less engaged.
Our feedback systems were good, with six-weekly questionnaires, forums and parents’ association meetings. However, this did not necessarily identify disengaged students and families. Silent families, and particularly those that were struggling, were not often identified in questionnaires.
Even though these numbers were relatively low, they were the families that needed the most support. We needed to reach out to, and find new ways to identify, families that might be struggling even sooner in the second lockdown.
So, we identified key indicators, such as ensuring our online class attendance system was secure, identify those families with their cameras off, identifying students not taking part in PE, and providing outreach support for families and students.
Ensuring pastoral staff, counsellors and tutors were online for care and wellbeing support was critical. Assemblies and wider meetings also had a focus on looking after each other at this time, too.
We all hope 2021 will bring us back to normality but we also know there are no guarantees around when this may happen, so establishing these core principles and outlining our expectations has been key to helping staff, pupils and parents find structure in our online delivery.
Iain Sallis is campus principal of Tenby Schools Setia Eco Park in Malaysia