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COVID-19: Keeping children learning during lockdown

Fiona Cottam, Principal of Hartland International School in Dubai, reflects on how distance learning is helping her school to cope with the outbreak of the coronavirus.

We never thought it would happen. Preposterous we said – they will never close us down! 

Over the course of five working days we went from full operations to a reduction of services for after school activities and inter-school events, to a complete closure, a need to design from scratch and create an online learning curriculum and a requirement to operate with a rearranged academic calendar. The UAE became the latest victim of the COVID-19 disease.

We have been fortunate to follow in the footsteps of China and Hong Kong and have learnt much from the experiences of other COBIS member schools but when it happens to you, all of the advice in the world swirls into a tornado of what must be done with a greater sense of urgency. I hope the experiences and advice I share will be of use.

·       For School Leaders, first and foremost, be open, be honest, be visible and be transparent with your staff and teams. They too are facing their own personal challenges, whether that is being away from family or being compelled to cancel all previously arranged holidays and travel plans as has happened to us in Dubai. Due to new term dates being issued by the Government and Spring Break being moved three weeks forward, we are on a sort of lockdown. I was meant to fly to Las Vegas to a great friend’s wedding so I know personally that the emotional upset outweighs the financial loss but for the teacher who has spent months saving for the trip of a lifetime, it is important that they know that you are truly there for them.

·       As a school principal, make sure that you collaborate and talk to other colleagues in other schools – it’s okay not have all of the answers, but when leaders talk to each other, we can support and lift each other’s spirits. Throw away the competitive mantle and indeed the “for profit” and “not for profit” mantras and reach out to each other. There is a privilege to leadership and now more than ever, leaders must lead.

·       Remember that unwittingly, even in the darkest of times, there are opportunities for people to shine. My Head of PE is a case in point. He has become the e-Learning leader by osmosis and taken the project lead without question and without being asked. His leadership has come to the fore and staff have genuinely appreciated his calm and measured approach to supporting them from class to virtual learning.

·       Other colleagues have also become “expert leaders” across the school as they got to grips quickly with the philosophy and practice and we have let that leadership flourish in the school.

·       We have become Twitter experts across the school, accessing resources and ideas from an incredible global community with many of my leadership team tweeting for the first time. In 5 days, it’s become a new habit!

·       In the early days of planning (as in days 4 and 5 of last week – country wide school closure was announced on the evening of day 3!) we were ambitious and trained the whole staff on the use of Microsoft Teams for visual delivery of lessons. Our children were going to have real virtual classrooms. We practiced it with our classes as low as Year 3. We would lead the way on this. But as time moved on, (days 1 and 2 of SLT planning in the holiday) we took time to reflect and modified our plans, putting together a whole school approach from Foundation Stage to Year 10 that has teachers create video blogs to support learning whilst being on-line during the scheduled timetable. 

·       We have planned for form tutors to be “Live” every morning for 15 mins to give some real life contact as it were, but our ambitions have been tempered as we considered effectiveness for learners and teachers, screen time, challenges for parents and indeed child protection issues.

·       We have allowed parents to borrow ipads – just a small number – where they did not have the technology to support the learning and teaching that we will put in place. We have also issued every primary school pupil with a blank new exercise book so that if they want to write, their work will be collated carefully in one place so that we can still track progress and give feedback in the future.

·       We have written a full programme, revised daily timetables for every year group and put together clear sets of instructions for everyone who will be engaged in this process. We have designed an FAQ page for parents which we can update as we progress and used a parent group as a sounding board to read our first drafts to see if they were workable and made sense.

·       As a final thought – and most importantly - we came together as a school. Not only have we done 12 months strategic work in 5 days, but we have grown in strength and community as a result of this global challenge that we face. We have provided lunch and other treats during a busy and hectic planning 2 days and our Staff Wellbeing Committee have planned staff social events for the new Spring break so that we can take comfort from each other.

As a school, we are happy to share any of our resources, plans, policies and ideas with any school or colleague across the globe with the disclaimer that our plans are only now 7 days old and have yet to be tried and tested!

So though times are challenging and changing, we have taken heart that the leaders of our country have taken preventative action to protect us and our education authority, the KHDA, have supported us and reminded us that we are #inthistogether. We are ready for the first of our tomorrows at the very least, and have, what we hope, is a positive plan in place to start the home learning journey of our students and staff.

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