Verdala International School spent much of the summer getting ready for the school to reopen on September 9, and indeed the gates opened to the delight of staff, parents, and above all, students, who were pleased to be back in school, despite the changes now in place.
Getting the school prepared was a challenge; in August we developed protocols based on the information available and created four operational scenarios for the academic year, planning for a variety of learners – students in school, vulnerable students who cannot attend, students on a two-week self-isolation period, and those who may be kept home by their parents.
The development of an online platform was key for every student to move smoothly from school-based learning to distance learning and back again, possibly at short notice. When the public health authority’s guidelines were issued, we only had to tweak the protocols and we were ready.
Nevertheless, there was understandable concern about opening up a hub of 530 students and 100 staff. We attempted to allay these fears by sharing the measures in place, showing that our priority is to keep everyone safe through daily temperature checks, masks, students in clusters, one-way systems, rules for parents to stay off-campus and risk assessments on all student spaces.
Much of our reassurance to parents has been about our cleaning protocols – additional cleaning, extra handwashing facilities and sanitisation stations at the entrance of every room. Students are not allowed to share materials; for example, in kindergarten the children have their own bag of toys to play with every morning; at the end of the week these are sanitised and then rotated the next week. Library books are quarantined for two days in a box before they are re-issued, and PE equipment and musical instruments are all sanitised before they return into circulation.
Masks were a great cause of anxiety before school started as many parents worried about their children wearing masks all day. Yet the World Health Organisation is clear in its recommendations that we should all wear masks, particularly to protect those around us. As a school, we have to work especially hard at protecting each other.
Thus, we took the decision, for the first two weeks after the holiday, to keep all our primary students in masks all day, giving us a fighting chance at the start to get to know any new students before a cluster may have to move online for two weeks.
Our big theme this year is 'adaptive change', and while this applies to access to education in a range of forms, as hybrid, synchronous (timetabled) or asynchronous (independent project-based) learning, it also applies to everyone’s attitudes, and we have to be flexible. We may have limitations to follow but we also have the ability to find workarounds.
It is true to say that some teachers have struggled with wearing masks because educationally it feels limiting and affects communication in the classroom. It is hard when a student cannot see you smile with encouragement; instead, teachers have had to find other ways to praise by using body language or vocalising more.
Teachers have had to find other ways to praise by using body language or vocalising more
Two weeks into school, a parent who at first struggled with the idea of her child in a mask, met me at the school gate and told me her child now loves wearing the mask, and sees it as a fashion accessory! I am not sure most of us will ever love wearing masks but we have certainly learnt to adapt.
I see our students around the school, wearing a mask and just getting on with it; they are so pleased to be back learning in the classroom.
We can't guarantee how long it will last, before a cluster or a staff member may have to self-isolate, but at least this time, unlike in March, we have had time to organise ourselves and be as ready as we can be for the various scenarios this academic year may throw at us.
Totty Aris is head of Verdala International School, Pembroke.
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