Our best-laid plans are put to the test

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It is now just over eight months since China reported the appearance of a ‘mysterious flu’ which came to be known as Covid 19. Two months later, all of the countries we report upon, with the exception of Sweden, closed their school gates to all but the most vulnerable pupils and those of key workers. Now, in the first week of September as we are regaled with images of the residents of Wuhan celebrating with a number of summer festivals, the countries we cover are back at school. 

Tremendous effort has been made by school staff to reach this point and as the first students arrive, best-laid plans will be put to the test.  Everything possible has been done to create a learning environment which minimises the risk of catching the virus. This task has been made more difficult by governments which change their advice according to continuously evolving evidence and scenarios surrounding the virus.  

The latest evidence relating to Covid-19, which we reviewed last week, now indicates that major risk appears to lie not within the school but at the school gates and beyond. Here, while  the number of cases is now relatively low, they often vary between one postal/zip code and another. Thus, national guidelines are conditional both upon the prevailing level of cases in a catchment area and cases within a school. At the moment, the preferred method of teaching is via static bubbles of students, with teachers moving between bubbles, rather than the students wandering around a school. 

These new methods have piled additional pressure across our correspondents and it is with this in mind that we bring you a slightly abridged update on the global situation. 

Canada

Mike Dubeau, Director General of the Western Western School Board has been back for the past four weeks.  He spent the first two ensuring that all the Board’s procedures to deal with the virus were in place.  With the situation less fraught, he has reduced his newsletters from daily to weekly.  The Board’s plans, in line with the rest of Quebec, have been forced to reflect a shortage of qualified teaching staff and an increase in the number of pupils and staff classified as vulnerable.  

Dubai

In Dubai the approach has been reassuringly cautious from the start. Just recently, staff who went on summer holiday for a few weeks were tested for the virus when they returned and again before school commenced. The deep-cleaning of schools has continued and the KD have used a graphic to display the response expected by schools.

International Schools in Dubai are all fee paying and as reported by Gulf News,make up one of the major outlays for parents. Therefore, the continuing economic downturn is still having a serious impact on student recruitment and retention.  

England

In England there are four stages of response in schools, depending on the level of virus cases in the area:

Tier 1: All pupils attend as normal.

Tier 2: Secondary schools and colleges move to rotas, with students alternating a fortnight attending and a fortnight at home. Primary schools remain open to all.

Tier 3: Most secondary pupils learn from home as secondary schools and colleges are only open to vulnerable children, the children of key workers and selected year groups.

Tier 4: All schools switch to remote learning, except for vulnerable children and the children of key workers, and students at alternative provision and special schools.

If there is an infection in the school, the local health protection teams will advise the school how many pupils need to be sent home to isolate for 14 days.

If a case occurs where the ‘bubbles’ used to limit pupils’ contacts in schools are smaller, such as a single class, all those in the bubble might have to be sent home to isolate.

In bigger bubbles, such as an entire year group, health protection teams could send home all other pupils, or limit self-isolation to those who were in direct contact or close proximity to or who had travelled with a pupil infected with the virus. (BBC, 2020)

With all this preparation and the emerging evidence of the limited effect the virus has on school children we reported last week, they are hoping that their pupil attendance rates will reach the old ‘normal’ level. 

Sweden

Mats Rosenkvist, CEO of Successful Schools Sweden, reports that Swedish schools reopened after the summer break in mid August.  All schools from primary to upper secondary no longer have online teaching and are happy to be back in the classrooms.  However, as with elsewhere, there have been a range of new procedures introduced to keep social distancing in focus. Higher Education programmes are about to start but they will continue to deliver courses through online teaching.

Overall, a lot of planning has been carried out for everyone to be prepared to change their ways of working if the cases occur. They cover all eventualities, including closing schools again.  Teacher unions have been focusing on the fact that their members are in a generally exposed situation when society expects them to carry out work as usual.

Public examination

England, Sweden and Wales have had to modify their public examination system for students leaving this year and are considering how they should be modified in the coming terms. 

Annually a special test is offered in Sweden for everyone who would like to improve their chances to get onto a higher education programme, provided they achieve sufficient school grades.  This is a very important test for young people, even more so during the Covid-19 pandemic. It is an opportunity to study now and improve chances to get a job during and after Covid-19.  However, the authorities have not found a way to carry out these tests, which has resulted in a lot of questions and frustration among society. 

In England, those who depended upon public examinations to be the arbiter of childrens’ performance at 16 and 18 years of age, which includes International Schools in Dubai, had to deal with a difficult situation. The first set of A-level results published were generated by an algorithm and on their announcement as usual the process of university placements started. However, as in Scotland before, the results for a significant number of students generated by this methodology quickly failed a public and professional validity test. As a result, within days these grades were modified to include teacher assessment.  Students who had been disappointed found they now had the required grades for their university course. This increased the places offered by Universities beyond what they had planned for and so they have been forced to to increase their capacity or encourage students to defer taking up their post until the following year. To prevent a repeat of this, it was decided that GCSE results would be totally reliant on teacher assessments. The resulting grades have proven to be on average higher than previous years, which has been great for the students who have had a difficult time of it, but has made the task of those using them to select students for different courses harder than usual, especially when the students have come from other schools. 

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At a personal level we realise that going back to school at last may be a very unsettling time for colleagues. Though in the past going back could initially be a shock to the system, once this was overcome there was a reassuring rhythm to school life. With a disrupted summer break, many new issues to contend with on your return and the threat of the disruption caused by the increased cases of the virus, this is now less likely to be the case.  

Take care and stay safe.

George