What I’ve learnt from School Closure: a Headteacher’s Point of View
By Emma Meadus, Head Teacher Coppice Valley Primary School
The announcement was made on March 18th that schools were closing to control the spread of corona virus. Probably like you, I was expecting this to happen. What I wasn’t expecting was that I would already be self-isolating at this point (poorly husband), I’d be opening a childcare centre, building a virtual school and setting up a food service with just 48 hours to do it. The best word, for me, to describe the last few weeks in the world of education is intense. Everything we’ve done has had to be at a rapid pace, pulling together plans in days that would usually take months of careful preparation. And of course…where were we going to get toilet roll and soap?! Yes, intense is definitely what it’s been but I’ve also learnt a lot about what matters most. Here are my reflections:
1. Schools are more than just places for learning stuff. They always have been, to be fair, but now more than ever, social and emotional support is our biggest priority. Children, and their parents, are missing their school friends and their teachers. Isolation is hard… really, really hard! We’ve got a strong culture of care and kindness at Coppice Valley which has been put to the test in the last few weeks and come out with top marks. Teachers are calling every family in their class just to say hello and check in. They’re emailing families regularly, doing virtual story times, making videos and sharing them on our website and social media so their friends can see. We started the Coppice Chronicle, an e-newsletter emailed out on a Friday to all families. It features an article about “A Day at Home with…” a different member of staff each week, competitions and winners, a virtual Friday celebration assembly list of top home-learners and photos of work sent in by pupils. Community is more important than ever now and staff are going all out to keep our Coppice family “virtually” together.
2. Video conference calls are a necessary evil. One of the first things I had to do was get over my loathing of seeing myself on screen and video conferencing (especially as I’m now 9 weeks since my last haircut. My roots!). Three weeks later and I’m converted and so are the staff (well, almost). We’re now having virtual staff meetings so we can keep our own little work community going, catching up with each other and discussing the school projects we’re working on from home. The staff have really got into making pre-recorded videos for the children too. We’ve got “Coppice-nory” bedtime stories on our Facebook page and art videos on our YouTube channel. If you’re fed up with Joe Wicks, try our PE teacher, Mr Sowerby’s challenges on YouTube.
3. Home Learning is hard even if you’re a teacher! Yep, it’s much easier teaching other people’s children in a school building than it is trying to teach your own at home while trying to do your own work, fighting for the one working laptop, getting a wash on and trawling the internet for loo roll and pasta. My husband is furloughed now so he’s become teacher, cook, cleaner, gardener, DIY-er and provider of fresh cups of tea for me as I work. We’ve now settled into a routine after much negotiating and easing of (my) expectations. My initial demands of 3 hours home-learning a day for my son has eased into three 30 minute blasts of essentials– keeping his spelling, reading and maths going. My dreams that by the end of this lockdown we would have mastered his spidery handwriting and aversion to capital letters and full stops have been well and truly dashed. But that’s OK. At Coppice Valley we’ve taken a simple approach to home learning. Each day, class teachers are posting learning activities on their class web pages, focussing on the essentials and a bit of fun, trying to be mindful of what resources and time you’ll have at home. We purposefully chose not to go down the technology road because we know not everyone has access to tablets and laptops to get onto online learning platforms. I’ve been worried about safeguarding issues with using live streaming technology for teaching so we’ve not done that either yet. But the response from families has been wonderful who love the daily drop of activities they get, helping them get into a routine and keeping that email contact with their teachers. If you need ideas for fun stuff to do at home, check out our class pages on www.coppicevalley.com
4. Trying to make the most out a bad situation is not always the right way to go. I never thought the day would come when I would think that. I always try to see the opportunity in everything and seize it. At the start of lockdown, my thoughts were something like this. “Right, now I can exercise every day, eat well, lose 2 stone, get on top of all my school jobs, sort the staff out with planning, reports and online training, fix the roof tile over my kitchen that came off three years ago, make sure my son learns so much he goes back to school ahead of his peers, drink 2 litres of water a day, repaint all my scuffed skirting boards and start the book on education I’ve been meaning to write.” It was as if I was trying to come out on top, to beat the lockdown and show it who’s boss. Normal, huh? There is no control over this situation though. The best we can do is get through it, one day at a time. If that means I eat an Easter egg for breakfast because I couldn’t get bread or cereal the day before, so be it. It won’t be forever, it’s OK to do what you have to do to get through it. Be kind to yourself.
5. You want to be in a strong team in a crisis. At no point in this national emergency have I felt alone and that this all rested on my shoulders to do. Being part of the Red Kite Trust has meant that all the strategic, logistical and operational issues of opening the childcare provision have been made in consultation together. In the first week we were having daily conference calls with all the heads and trust directors, working out how we were going to do this. Who counts as a key worker? How do we find out which parents qualify? How would people book in? Were staff required to work or volunteer? How do we socially distance very young children? How do we rota staff? The list went on and on. But by working together, we’ve now got a childcare hub that is running smoothly and safely. None of us could have done it on our own.
6. A crisis can bring out the best in people. I think you see people’s true colours in a time of crisis. You see who steps forward, who shares their toilet roll and pasta with you and of course, who doesn’t. As a headteacher, I’ve been so proud of my staff and the way they have thrown themselves into their new way of working, running our virtual school. My senior leaders and office manager got on with organising our home-learning, making a staffing rota and sourcing food for the first week while I was self-isolating at home having many video-calls a day with the Trust. It became apparent early on that we couldn’t keep running our separate school buildings, we were going to have to pool our resources if we were going to be providing the childcare for more than a week or two. Simple things like not having any soap and paper towels left and the catering staff off sick were impossible obstacles in the face of corona virus. By the second week of operations, the Red Kite primaries in Harrogate had moved to the Hub model so we could continue to operate, at Rossett Acre Primary. This school was chosen as it has plenty of space inside and out for each school to run its own mini-school within the building. Each school has its own staff looking after their own children. For social distancing purposes, the children from different schools don’t mix. We get the children outside as much as possible and if inside try to maintain 2 metre distances as far as possible. We clean surfaces and wash our hands A LOT! This week, I’ve been Hub leader, working out of the headteacher’s office in Rossett Acre. At first, it was so strange to be working at someone else’s desk, in someone else’s school with staff from three schools that I’ve never met before. But I’ve got to say that I’ve loved it. The atmosphere in the Hub is wonderful, the children are so happy and the staff are positive and keen to do their part in supporting the key workers. It’s been really uplifting to be here.
7. Your priorities change. Four weeks ago every waking thought I had was about SATS tests and Ofsted coming. Now, they couldn’t be further from my mind. Overnight, things changed and what matters now is looking after people, making sure everyone is OK. One of the most important things I do each week now is helping with food distribution for free school meal recipients. We’re also thinking about our children who are leaving us this year and moving to high school. Will we see them before they leave? What about the rites of passage they were all looking forward to? Final assembly, the play and leavers’ hoodies? Then what about our new Reception children starting in September? How will we meet them if social distancing is still in force? Transitions like these are important milestones for children and their families so we’re putting a lot of thought into how we can make sure we meet these needs.
School life will certainly feel the effects of closure and lockdown, even when we get back to school, for some time. We will need time to recover academically. We will need to put lots of work into mental health as some children and staff may be grieving Ever the optimist though, I hope we can take something from the situation, even if that is just to slow down and appreciate what really matters in life.