The impossibility of planning for coronavirus in school

Michael Tidd has been holding coronavirus planning meetings with his staff – but, with so many remaining unknowns, it still isn't entirely clear what they ought to be planning for

Child dispenses hand sanitiser from bottle

As a frame of reference, the hazard of having to make a judgement call about snow is universally understood by school leaders across the country. So far, in Sussex at least, we’ve been lucky enough to escape that particular problem this year. 

But it has frankly paled in comparison to the trials of the past week regarding coronavirus.

We’d already started with the extra handwashing shortly after half-term and had even managed to get hold of some hand sanitiser gel before the worst of the rush. So it felt like we were all set. 

We’ve not been hard hit by pupils returning from overseas, and thankfully had no residential trips planned ourselves. So, at the start of last week, it seemed like a “keep calm and carry on” approach was all that was necessary. Well, that and a few hundred extra paper towels.

Planning for the unknown

I started last week with plans to discuss the situation at our senior leadership meeting, knowing that that wasn’t until Wednesday. By the time the meeting came, there seemed a greater urgency to set out our plans. 

What wasn’t clear – and still isn’t – was quite what we should be planning for. The virus appeared to be spreading in other countries, but impact in the UK seemed fairly limited.

We knew there’d been discussion of potential school closures, but talk in the staffroom was about the end of the month, or maybe the government just hanging on for the Easter holidays.

Even on Wednesday, when we met, it felt like we were planning for a theoretical possibility rather than a likely event.

We started with the potential hazard of staff being absent, rather than school closure. Like so often on snow days, the big issue was not the obvious one, but the impact it has on being able to safely staff a school. But how do you decide when staff numbers are too few? 

More unknown quantities

We talked about larger class sizes. But where would we put them? It’s not like we’ve all enjoyed the luxury of classes of 20 in rooms for 30: our classrooms are already pretty full. 

But then, of course, there’s the possibility that, as staff numbers fall, so might pupil numbers

The trouble with that is predicting it. Plan for 200 pupils, and then have 250 turn up, and you can quickly find yourself in an unmanageable situation. Similarly, a closure partway through the day is likely to cause more problems.

As the week drew to a close, enforced closure seemed more likely – but when, and for how long? These are still unknown quantities. 

The impossibility of online learning

Everyone online and in the media appears to be talking about remote learning and lessons by Skype – but the realities of that soon ruled out those possibilities for us. 

How many pupils rely on a mobile phone for their only internet access, and quite possibly on limited data for the whole household? How many families would need their online devices for parents who are working from home?

There’s no chance of its being viable to try to teach lessons via the web, much less to provide any sort of assessment or feedback.

Instead we try to be more realistic: what can we reasonably send home, and what direction can we give to families to help them keep learning? 

But that’s not the half of it. For every pupil without reliable access to the internet, how many are there without reliable access to food? If school is closed, then what happens to those depending on free school meals for their main meal of the day?

In truth, as discussions continue, the practicalities of a snow day seem positively simple. As talk of closures of weeks – possibly for months – loom, the likelihood of any sort of meaningful online learning becomes far less of a focus: the bigger priority is how we make sure our pupils, and their families, are safe.

In the meantime, we opened again today, and are doing our best to continue as normal. But the new normal is a constant state of wondering what actions we’ll need to take next.

Michael Tidd is headteacher at East Preston Junior School in West Sussex. He tweets @MichaelT1979

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