The writing is on the wall. Schools are probably going to close so we need to prepare.
I tell staff to start preparing material which could be done remotely – "snow day" work.
As a pilot, I investigate how to save material where pupils can access it on a shared drive. We trial it in the ICT room in my science lesson. It worked. The next week I got the ICT teacher to show my pupils how they could access the same work from home. Another success. The test was successful for both downloads and uploads using a rather basic app called FOLDR.
So, as a small primary school. We now have the most rudimentary of virtual learning platforms.
I tell staff to make copies of things they might need to set work if they got stuck at home – CDs, passwords, various files. I told them the school network would be working but at any time the school might physically close.
The ICT teacher prepares a crib sheet and trains the other classes in FOLDR. Lots of technical glitches to iron out, but it largely works.
Week beginning 16th March
So many pupils are now away – ill, isolating or just scared – that we start to post work on FOLDR, even though school is open.
School closure announced. We survey all parents to establish key workers. We draw up a list of vulnerable children. We have very few with EHCPs or a social worker so our list is broader. Anyone with poor attendance, difficulty in accessing the curriculum or who we just feel might benefit. 17 key worker children and 18 vulnerable. We evaluate the key workers – some rather odd categories – and send out the letters.
A decision is made to staff the key worker / vulnerable child-care facility on our sister school's site, East Ferry, with a combination of staff from both schools. Staff surveyed. Who can run the facility for the week of closure and the Easter holidays? One of my experienced middle managers steps up to run it for that first week.
Staff gather for a drink on Friday 20th. Who would have known that this was the last time any of us would enjoy such a social get-together for months? How many germs were passed that night in the communal crisps and the carelessly-washed glasses?
Feel rough. I get up and record an assembly for Monday. We might be closed, but they're still getting Mr Blain's assembly. Feel shivery.
Can't seem to shake this hangover! Shivery. Feels like flu. I am really run down - the last two weeks have been stressful.
Monday 23rd (COVID day 1)
I feel really ill. High temperature. For some reason the tastes of coffee and chocolate (two of my favourite things) make me feel physically sick. Temperature fluctuates between 37 and 40. My wife buys a national-emergency size pack of paracetamol.
Throughout this week the child-care is running. In parallel, the teachers are uploading work for the pupils to do at home. I can only manage a faint interest. My hero colleague seems to have it covered at the child-care and other people are doing their best holding the rest together.
Monday 30th (COVID day 8)
I feel really ill. This is the longest illness I have ever had and it's not shifting.
Wednesday 1st (COVID day 10)
I can't really breathe. My lungs feel like they are made of crackly paper. If I move too suddenly, I draw too much oxygen, my lungs feel like exploding. The remedy is to hang my head low, let the blood run slowly back in, crawl back to bed. My next door neighbour (a doctor) drops in a blood oxygen meter. 85%, dangerously low. Under normal circumstances I would be hospitalised. The idea terrifies me. No idea what is happening at school. Thank goodness for my amazing staff.
Monday 6th April (COVID day 15)
I start to feel better. I crawl downstairs. The kids watch Home Alone. There's a scene in a church with a lovely tune. I Shazam it and find it's called O Holy Night.
I set myself three targets for this time at home: Learn to play the Piano, learn to play Poker, learn to make Pitta bread. Three Ps. Then there's a fourth P – Pounds. I haven't eaten for 2 weeks and I'm 16 pounds lighter. That feels great!
Anyway, the first P. I realise that I have long forgotten how to read music. I find O Holy Night on youtube with a kind of piano keys animation. We pop the ipad where the music sheets should go on the piano. My daughter plays the bass, I play the treble and away we go. Two hours later and we can play it. I always associate that tune with a COVID feeling, which is a kind of washed-out physical feeling combined with a sense of great relief at having survived.
My goodness, I have survived.
Community in over-drive, doing each others' shopping, checking up; others more serious than me in hospital. A terribly high number of deaths.
COVID Day 21
I start to think about work again.
As we head towards term re-starting, we thinking about the way forward. It can’t be random, it can’t be up to parents, we need to take the lead. It is now term-time, we are teachers and we need to own this.
The following are our basic principles:
- Quality core work which is marked
- Extension work
- Regular contact with families
We set core work (literacy, maths) which will take around 2 hours each week-day.
We provide a range of extension activities covering foundation subjects, along with web-sites which we deem suitable. We are careful not to overload.
Teachers set the materials, working in pairs. This is e-mailed home in one big e-mail at the end of the each week for the next. My role is quality control, shout-outs and adding in the extra websites. Fridays are busy as I check these e-mails.
Teaching assistants take the uploaded work in, mark it and return it to pupils.
Any family who cannot access the work online can e-mail in and have it printed. We even take in hard copies of the work and scan it to send to the markers. For families that have difficulty we deliver it to the house!
A combination of teachers and TAs contact families. Every family must be in touch every week (this could be correspondence about the work). If they don’t reply within the week, it is referred to me as a safeguarding matter.
All contact and work completed is entered into a shared spreadsheet, along with details of those attending the child-care. I can honestly say that, at a glance, I can tell that everyone is still on the radar and engaging.
Some of my staff are isolating. Two are in New Zealand, one Norfolk, another sofa surfing in West London. My challenge is to ensure all are involved in the work.
To Zoom or not to Zoom? The unions warn against it, teachers worry that their homes are being invaded by prying eyes through laptop webcams, and their data is being swallowed up. So the answer is no, much to the dismay of parents who point to private schools offering a full day of online teaching.
A week later and the policy evolved to “you may conduct zoom calls” if you obey the clear guidelines. Unsurprisingly the staff weren’t keen. Step up wonderful Deputy Head. She will run the zooms. We prepare a topic in advance, send out private invitations, operate a waiting room and she controls the process while the class teacher delivers. Very successful – complete control, fantastic engagement. These are for PSHE-type topics, class discussions and a little whole-class teaching. Same Deputy runs a popular online dance class.
Meanwhile other brilliant teachers are recording little videos to explain the work.
My assemblies continue every Monday and are complemented by a newsletter every Friday show-casing the great work channelled to me by teachers from their pupils.
Over time, class by class switched to Seesaw which was just better than FOLDR – easier to use, designed for work to be annotated and perfect for little kids. Meanwhile, we have a regular staff meeting, compulsory attendance, by Zoom (later replaced with MS Teams). My little office at home became a studio as I invested in a high quality camera on boom with a decent microphone. My hair may have gone fuzzy but the image is crystal clear.
Monday 1st June
I was not initially supportive of the considered return to school. Why the youngest classes who are most difficult to control? They lick each other!
But return we did after a detailed Risk Assessment had been conducted. Not huge numbers in reception, nor (surprisingly) year 6, but loads in year 1. Careful planning of room usage and entry / exit times were needed and we decided to open for just half days – retrospectively one of my best decisions.
It was great to see the pupils but I felt that the others were really missing out.
Monday 8th June
A discussion within the schools of the Trust to decide how we might expand. Could we expand years R, 1 and 6 to full days? We can’t because we have a tiny site and managing playtimes on a rota with distancing will be very hard.
Could we squeeze extra pupils in from existing years?
Or could we, as had just been allowed, open to other years. I was dead keen to do this.
We survey parents – well over half want to return. A vote of confidence, it has obviously been seen as safe because more are added from the initial three year-groups. This will need detailed planning. With final numbers, we can run classes of no more than 12, some morning, some afternoon. We don’t need to double-use rooms or teachers. The cleaning company tells me they could have cleaned and disinfected some rooms between shifts if needed; not sure about cleaning and disinfecting the teachers….but not needed. We just fitted.
Cleaners amazing. The school always looks clean, but just now it is spotless.
Every group “bubble” has a precise arrival and departure time which we enforce rigidly and a specified entrance. Each group is colour-coded, and these colours appear on the register for quick access, on classroom doors, toilets and basins. (I toyed with buying colour-coded caps and colour-coded shirts for staff.) No cross-contamination. Military precision.
My middle leadership team has stepped up and we have a rota of who is in charge, who is on duty and clear procedures for everything.
I love my staff because they are so up for it – they have bought into new ideas readily, changed direction on demand and are just prepared to make it work. And, of course, our core values and commitment to the education of the kids keeps us buoyed.
I walk around school. The classes are small but it’s great to see us working as a school again and we will have nearly three weeks of this.
So now the end of term looms. This hasn’t been perfect. Some parents have not engaged, some wanted more than we could offer, but we have largely made it work. We have certainly done the best we can.
We have grown, we have re-invented ourselves as publishers, film-makers and media stars; we have learnt a lot of new skills. And we have thrived in the face of adversity.