Despite the sense that the summer holiday is still in full steam, behind the closed doors of schools across Malta the machines are revving up in anticipation of the new scholastic year. Leadership teams are training staff and ensuring summer maintenance works are completed to get the school back into shape, ready for the students bursting with enthusiasm and energy for another academic year.

Schools have the advantage of fresh starts every September, an opportunity to set goals, revisit core values of the school and identify short- and long-term initiatives that will impact positively on student learning.  With the backdrop of COVID, there is the added challenge that we all know the rules could change at short notice.

However, at least this year we have a better understanding of the context. Last year, we were still in a guessing game both of what the government rules would be. Also, without a vaccination programme on the horizon, there was a sense of fear and anxiety for our own health and others, and indeed that the country may shut down again.

This September, we have the rules and can run operations accordingly. There was hope that they would be adapted to the context of staff and secondary students being vaccinated, however the restrictions around school-life remain. Students in bubbles, no parents and visitors on campus, no sharing of pens and paper and no movement in the classroom as seating plans prevail.

Schools certainly want rules that continue to keep everyone safe; however when you look beyond the school gates at the copious numbers of people chatting mask-less in bars, one does wonder why schools remain in such rigid circumstances. However, we are educators, not scientists, and live in hope that some perimeters will ease.

Our students still need a pedagogical practice that helps them build that better future for themselves

Like most reputable organisations, a good school has a solid strategic plan, shared with the school community to identify community goals. Strands show a plan of action for annual school improvement in areas such as teaching and learning, the school environment, finances and community. Unfortunately, the COVID crisis slowed these plans down, not least because psychologically it has become harder to see beyond next year.

We all ask questions like ‘Will there be another wave or shutdown?’ and ‘Do we need to plan for hybrid mode or distance learning again?’ These questions deter us from the big strategic questions such as ‘How can we implement project-based learning into our teaching’, or ‘How can we make the classroom more student-centred’ or  ‘How can our school make a sustainable contribution to the climate change debate?’ These are the problems we would rather be solving, and despite the sense of urgency of the now, as we are all building towards our children’s better future, we need to keep the education systems evolving with a 21st century mindset.

Young people are acutely aware of challenges the world is facing and are worried about the future of their planet, both in terms of climate change, the impact of the pandemic and the struggles of many countries. As a school with international-mindedness and inclusivity at its heart, we aim to offer a context where current issues are incorporated into the curriculum and can be safely discussed and learnt from, in an effort to prepare our students to be citizens of tomorrow, who in their own time will make positive contributions.

The reality is that we are living in an ongoing pandemic, and we have to adapt our current practice and consider both short-term reactive and long-term planning. We can no longer wish to ‘go back to normal’; this is the new normal, and it involves being ever-ready for a spike in cases, a cohort or staff member to be in quarantine and the reality of offering a variety of ways to access education.

The opportunities may be slowed down by the pandemic, but progress must continue; our students still need a pedagogical practice that helps them build that better future for themselves. At VIS, we can’t wait for our students to come back. We are equipped to handle the COVID situation and ready to keep our school moving forwards with energy, innovation and strength.

Totty Aris, head, Verdala International School

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