Our sense of a normal world came crashing down during the carnival break. There had been mutterings before, of course; with 47 nationalities we could feel the impact as stories were told of schools turning to online learning, but it was still something that was happening to others, a long way away. Then northern Italy was struck and everything changed.
Fortunately for us, we were prepared in terms of training. We allocated our roles: gold – for overview, silver – in charge and bronze allocated to various responsibilities such as medical, pastoral, communication and the big one – developing a distance learning programme. Within a few days we had created a policy, practice and procedures that could quickly be applied; fortunately, the international school network is full of resources which are ready to share among their members.
Our objective was to continue to provide online meaningful education to all our students, whose ages range from three to 18. This meant getting the community up to speed on technology that would see them through this. It helps that many of our students are used to working online and Zoom became our new best friend.
The whole mindset of how to run a class online had to be rethought
When the announcement came, we were ready. After a few days of staff preparation, we initiated a new schedule, with reduced lesson timings, as we had learnt from our Asian colleagues that following a normal school timetable is unrealistic online.
In fact, the whole mindset of how to run a class online had to be rethought; it requires chunking of tasks, Zoom clinics for advice and using Google Classroom to give feedback.
We take attendance and continue to assess students as we would normally, offering formative experiences through tasks and activities, and ending each unit with a summative. We monitor each student’s progress so that they can receive an accountable report at the end of the semester.
We are also dealing with the consequences of the cancelled IB diploma and IGCSE exams and must find a way for our school leavers to have closure to their school life.
‘Adaptablity’ and ‘resilience’ are just two of the pillars represented daily in our community, as all our staff stepped up to be role models of how to triumph during adversity. They have been innovative but also very open to adapting their practice.
The first two weeks of distance learning were a steep learning curve; however, working together and sharing ideas not only helps adapt to this new situation, it also means that staff can give each other mutual support during a stressful time. Their diligence and commitment in making this work has been invaluable, as has been the cooperation of the school’s leadership team and board.
As head of school, I zoom with the student council to get their feedback and to hear how they are coping. Equally, we have to stay connected to our staff and monitor their well-being. It has been vital to keep in contact with parents so that they feel included in this work-in-progress. The phrase most repeated in the first two weeks was “it’s overwhelming”; thankfully, this has shifted to “feels a lot calmer” as we evolve and embrace the new normal.
So what’s next for us? The news that schools are now shut until the end of June is a huge disappointment to the students; they want to come back and see their friends. This will be a pastoral challenge as we seek to find ways for them to stay connected and monitor any students who may seem disengaged and isolated.
As head of school, what I miss most is seeing the children; gone is the laughter, the chatter, the occasional child rushing past; instead, an empty school. We can’t wait for it to be filled again.
In the meantime, I will have to make do with popping in on Zoom assemblies (92 students on a screen is a powerful thing), a talent show created out of their homes and the occasional wave from a distance as I see a Verdala family taking exercise on the promenade.
We will get through this together, as a united community; teachers, parents and students, adapting our practice and reaching out to each other. As I always sign off these days – stay safe and stay healthy.
Totty Aris, Head. Verdala International School, Pembroke