Caution reigns amid the reopening of schools

Those who have been in school to see their pupils return say they have been uplifted by the experience

Dates are starting to be set for a return to lessons, but that hasn’t stopped parents in some countries from exercising their own judgement on when they feel it is safe for their children to start school again. 

Global update

Canada

The number of students returning to the Elementary schools in the Western Quebec School Board continues to trickle upwards. Mike Dubeau, Director General of the WQSB, reported in his daily update that 14.3 per cent (up from 13.23 per cent the previous week) of students had returned to school. They had 624 students in 98 groups for an average of 6.4 students per group, which was still well below the MEES maximum of 15 and the WQSB Maximum of 10. 

Dubai

In Dubai the glimmers of hope continue to brighten as movement restrictions are lifted further, hotels reopen and the Emirates airline starts rescheduling flights. However, homeschooling for the moment continues. 

England

This is the end of the first week for Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 students to return to school. On the first day the attendance rate varied, from 40 per cent  to 70 per cent according to the BBC, although one Headteacher’s Union put the figure between 30 per cent and 70 per cent. However, while the debate continues to rage around the rights and wrongs of the decision, those who have been in school to see their pupils return say they have been uplifted by the experience and the pupils, even within the strict physical restrictions, have enjoyed meeting their peers and teachers. 

In the secondary schools, preparations are underway for the return of Year 10 and 12 students on June 15. At a headteacher level, earlier in the week there were still a number of issues that needed clarification such as what action needed to be put in place to protect BME staff and how you run a performance management system in the current situation. When staff return to school the change in the environment can be disquieting, with floors covered with carefully spaced yellow lines and all surfaces coated in plastic sheeting. In addition, being told who amongst the school population has been tested for the virus, who has it or has had it and who is asymptomatic can add to feelings of disquiet. 

Major adjustments are not limited to schools.  We spoke to Qing Gu, Director of the London Centre for Leadership in Learning and Professor of Leadership in Education at the University College London, Institute of Education. She said she had fully expected during the lockdown to focus upon her research and complete the book she was in the process of writing.  Instead, all of her work needed to be adapted to working safely in a Coronavirus environment. She said this had challenged our way of thinking about their own pedagogy. Those of her staff who had depended upon physical contact to deliver most of their programmes have had to accept the new limitations. 

As a result, all the centre’s professional programmes have now gone online. Major research programmes such as in South Africa which relied on face-to-face interviews for much of the evidence, have had to be adapted. The already complex Early Career Framework programme being rolled out in the North East of England among three research schools and the Universities of Newcastle and Manchester Met, has had to be redesigned for virtual learning. This means providing new material for both teacher and tutor.  

All of this has created an inordinate amount of additional work which has stretched the capacity of the centre.  Qing is also concerned that programmes such as research on deprivation in South Africa which will prove invaluable will be delayed as methods are adjusted. Whilst all this is going on, at the same time the centre is preparing for a major relaunch so research paper and book writing might have to be shelved a while longer. 

Sweden

Sweden has taken a unique approach to tackling the virus, with less stringent controls upon personal movement. The other Baltic nations have not followed suit. The result is that the rate of infection is far higher in Sweden than in the other countries. However, it is expected that in the longer-term, spikes will be avoided when the virus returns. This approach is subject to continual debate within the country and interest from the rest of the world.

Mats Rosenkvist, Of Successful Schools Sweden, reports that though play, primary and secondary schools have been open all spring, some 10 to 20 per cent of the pupils have remained at home based on their parents’ decision not to follow school law (this depends on which part of the country they are in). The upper secondary and higher education establishments which have been closed since March are now preparing to open.  Many expect online learning to play a significant part in teaching moving forward, even if basically everyone now understands and values the social dimension of teaching and learning. 

Wales

Kirsty Williams, Education Minister, announced on June 3 that all schools would begin to reopen on June 29 and the term would be extended by a week to finish July 27. This would be compensated with a two-week half term in the autumn. The opening would be phased, with students in cohorts with staggered starts, lessons and breaks. This will “make sure pupils, staff and parents are prepared – mentally, emotionally and practically – for the new normal in September.” 

One of the underlying rationales for the action is that the Minister believes that “it is only by returning to their own school that we will see increased attendance from our more vulnerable and disadvantaged students.” 

For some this announcement came out of the blue. Simon Thompson, Deputy Headteacher at Cardiff High School said that at the moment he was run off his feet. We look forward to a more detailed analysis of his situation shortly and we wish him and all his colleagues well. 

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In all of this, we are sure that few of us have been able to avoid the delights of video conferencing through FaceTime, Zoom, Microsoft Team or by other providers. From our reading of the financial papers we are not alone. Zoom for example has seen its use increase by 300-fold in April and from the start of the pandemic has increased its profits by 150 per cent and its value on the stock market has risen by 400 per cent. During the same period, Garmin, the maker of exercise GPS trackers, has reported a considerable increase in physical activity, especially indoors. We mention this not for the economic impact but rather that staying in contact visually with each other and taking care of our health by exercising regularly are ways of supporting our wellbeing during this non-normal period. Take care and stay safe. George