Amid a raging public debate on safety and if it is all right for children to return to their desks, one school has been quietly getting on with teaching students for weeks.
Verdala International School opened its doors to all 538 students at once on September 9, long before their peers at most other schools are due back next week.
The Pembroke school’s head, Totty Aris, said there is always a “fear of the unknown” about reopening schools in the pandemic, but in her experience, this eases off once everyone settles down to their routine.
“Once you know the engine is working, even if you have to tweak it a bit, then everybody calms down. It can work, it can definitely work,” she said.
She said the school, which teaches children from around 50 different countries, learned the importance of being flexible and accepting that things can change in an instant: what works on a Monday, she said, might no longer be valid on a Wednesday.
And the school has prioritised building its online platform so that, should there be any problems, students can continue their education from home.
Aris says it is important that parents are kept informed at every step.
“We shared everything so that everyone understands what we are doing. We also focused a lot on the children’s well-being and so we went around with counsellors because we didn’t want to scare anybody,” she said.
“Our motto has always been that if we work together on something, we can make it work. And that is what we are doing,” she added.
So far, the school has recorded no cases of COVID-19, but the head’s biggest concern is a general complacency about the virus, which has infected more than 3,000 people in the country since March and has been linked to 34 deaths.
“I think my biggest fear when I go to bed every day is complacency. You know, in the beginning everybody is willing to play a part of it and do their bit, and three weeks in, you know things are still going well,” Aris said.
If we start messing around with the rules then it is going to go back to online school
“But, then you need to start to think, okay, I actually need to keep doing this and not everybody might realise that.”
So, how are the children adapting to the changes?
After their extended break, they have had to social distance from their friends and classmates, wear masks and remain in their protective ‘bubbles’.
School nurse Odette Micallef Engerer said that in just three weeks, the students at the school have already become accustomed to the changes.
Mask-wearing, for instance, has become the norm, even for the younger students and social distancing is almost second nature.
“Look at the line of students, there aren’t any marks on the floor and we haven’t told them to keep a distance between them and yet they are all apart,” the nurse said, pointing to a line of some 10 mask-wearing students who had just walked past.
Three 17-year-olds – Luna, Ilaria and Eve – said they were sticking to the rules, partly because they don’t want to go back to online learning.
“We have to accept the rules set in place. If we start messing around with the rules then it is going to go back to online school and then people won’t be happy again,” Luna said.
Ilaria added: “When you’re at home you wake up and… you have online school the entire day, you don’t really feel like it ends that much.”
Eve said this also made interacting with people at school more special.
She urges others to get to know people they would not normally befriend, saying the lockdown made her realise the importance of human interaction.
Maths and Psychology teacher Lisa Placi, said the return to school is important as she gets to lay the foundations for the upcoming year in person.
“We are all aware that we might have to go back to online learning at some point and so I think that by being able to be in class right now I am able to build the correct foundation,” she said.