How can you tell when someone is smiling at you if they're wearing a protective face mask?
This was my first thought as I prepared to greet our returning students on our first morning back. But as students arrived waving, giggling and chatting with others, it was easy to detect.
It was a good feeling to see our students again and hear their excitement as they prepared for the transition from online learning back to "normal".
The overall mood of this first day, according to one of our students, was “great to be back, but it is a bit strange”.
A fair observation – and a pleasing one as we had tried hard to create as much of the usual "fun" learning environment as usual, while ensuring student safety.
Coronavirus: The impact of school on student wellbeing
Our students have been busy this week and it’s clear that being back in the school environment is essential for their wellbeing.
A return to the school building has given them opportunities to build relationships, play games and interact with each other again.
Indeed, a highlight of the first week has been the amount of fun the students have had with continuing the group PE and exercise challenges; from dancing to "planking" with music.
The students have also enjoyed lessons outside in the woodland area, learning from nature, and a selection of cooking tasks in our school nutrition room.
These key initiatives have transformed a potentially difficult week into a positive experience for the students.
There is no question that going back is laden with concerns – but it is important also to remember that there can be moments of enjoyment, too, and students will appreciate this.
A safety-first school reopening
Safety has, of course, been our driving motivation, though.
We are proud of the way in which we have organised the safe return of our students.
As a school, we started to plan our return from the first week of online learning by gathering information from other schools in our company (as a school in the Orbital Education group) so potential questions relevant to our community and the essential areas that would make people feel calm and reassured when we returned were addressed.
After all, staff are on the front line; from teachers, assistant teachers, admin and other non-teachers, we wanted everyone aligned in our expectations of safety and to know we were taking it seriously, too.
We also included students in this process by inviting them to write from their own perspective. This helped to ensure that the school was a safe environment and that staff knew about their anxieties and worries.
We completed our plan three weeks before the start of school, following the information for Slovenian schools reopening.
As Slovenia opened its borders, our plan could then be implemented in stages following the Gantt chart on our website showing when year groups were scheduled to return.
During this time, we have learned so much from going through the process of following guidance, planning ahead and collaborating with others who have been through this challenge.
My top five tips for those planning a return to school are:
- Student wellbeing and safety should come first in every decision.
- Include staff in the consultation process.
- Encourage fun and exciting learning opportunities for all students with an enhanced timetable of lessons and blended learning.
- Communicate out early the plan to return and amend it as and when needed, including updates after the reopening.
- Create a solid checking process to ensure that everything you said you will do has been done.
After the students and staff arrived back safely at school, I was very proud of how everyone worked together.
I left looking forward to another successful term ahead and with a smile on my face – under my protection mask, of course.
Paul Walton is the principal at the British International School of Ljubljana, Slovenia. He tweets @paultwalton