Preparing for a school closure

Written by David Tongue, Principal of St George's British International School, Rome

As the sun rises on yet another beautiful spring morning in Rome, the streets of the capital are empty and pupils at St George’s British International School are about to enter their second week of remote lessons.

When the first Italian school closures were announced in the north of the country, we were just beginning our February half term break and a flurry of activity during this usually quiet period meant that, whilst we managed to re-open for a couple of days before the nationwide closer was decreed, we had had a little more time than many to prepare for the eventual shutdown. As per our contingency plan, when the decree came through late one night, an ​intensive preparation day was organised for teachers and support staff where the expectations on them, and the support they would be provided with to help them to meet these, were outlined.

Our vision and aims for this period are clear and concise:
● Firstly, that successful and engaging learning must continue in spite of these challenges  
● Secondly, that none of our pupils should be disadvantaged by the school closure 
● And finally, we would look to turn these challenges into advantages and opportunities for the school and its community.

The preparation day allowed departments and phases the time and the space to amend their planning and prepare and upload all the ​digital resources required to support live lessons to cover the then entire closure period (six school days). Crucially, it also allowed the team the time to prepare parental ​curriculum overviews for this period which are made available on a separate website. These not only ensure that parents are fully informed, they also significantly decrease the amount of parental queries that are directed at teachers and allow them additional space to focus on meeting the pupils’ needs whilst they are away from the school. For older pupils, it also ensures that they have their own ​private learning space whilst their parents are still fully informed about what they should be working on. One final benefit of the preparation day was that it forged an unbelievable sense of togetherness, collegiality, support and determination among all members of staff. This has since spread to the whole school community as pupils and parents work together and feedback their appreciation of the lesson content and gratitude for the online learning provision. 

Live lessons are conducted using​ Google Meet which is a conferencing platform and these remote classroom expectations ensure that a reasonable approximation of a regular lesson can be achieved. All of the digital resources are hosted on​ Google Classroom​, pupil work is produced using Google’s ​G-Suite and is ‘turned in’ (to use the platform’s US vernacular) and marked within the platform. To try and reduce the amount of screentime the pupils are exposed to, teachers have been asked to plan frequent ​non-screen activities which are photographed as appropriate to upload for feedback. All of these referenced products are freely available to schools (at no cost), are multi-platform and accessible from any device and training materials are widely available online to support teachers. This fits with the school’s wider digital strategy of focusing investment on training and development. This has had the added advantage of meaning that we are able to largely ignore the proliferation of marketing spam from commercial providers looking to benefit from the COVID-19 crisis!

In the Senior School, pupils follow their ​regular timetable and all lessons (including PE, Design Technology and wellbeing) are covered. In the two Junior Schools, pupils are following an adapted timetable which sees each day being made up of the following learning ‘blocks’​:
1. English  
2. Mathematics  
3. Focus Topic (Science, History, Geography, DT, Computing and Art)  
4. Specialist Subject (Italian, Music and PE)  
5. Pastoral Care and Wellbeing    

Following a new decree issued within the past couple of days, the school closure period has now been extended and the entire country is now in ‘lockdown’.The work carried out prior to the closure and during the preparation day has meant that we are ready to simply roll these routines over to the next and subsequent weeks. The lockdown has meant that we have had to shut down one of our two sites and divert phone lines to homeworking support staff. We are acutely aware that many of our team are at risk of feeling isolated during this period so we have set up ​virtual staff rooms and are ​continuing with meetings remotely. Senior staff are frequently conducting​ video calls ​with those we have identified as being particularly vulnerable. This period has been incredibly challenging for our teaching families - particularly those with younger children who are having to work very differently than they are used to and have lost their childcare facilities. Conversely, single teachers with a looser support network risk feeling lonely or cut off during the ‘lockdown’ period.  

Pastoral care is a particular challenge in a remote learning environment and at a point when many pupils have had routines disrupted and many will be feeling anxious and miss their friends. In the Junior School, classroom teachers are able to maintain strong relationships, but we are having to be creative within the Senior School where​ remote assemblies and the ​tutorial system are being re-created but these innovations miss the emotional connection that face-to-face communication allows for. We are also conducting video workshops to help our parent community to manage this period and are continuing with parents meetings​ remotely.

One surprising outcome of this period - and the legacy that it is likely to have - is a balancing of teachers’ views towards the role of technology in the classroom. For many of our most technologically innovative teachers, this period has underlined to them the limitations of online or remote learning. For these teachers, it has become clearer that there are some facets of education that remote learning can’t hope to reproduce. For other teachers, including those who have been more resistant to incorporating technology within their practice, they have been surprised by what can be achieved and just how effective these tools can be. As with many challenges, it is likely that, when we finally return to normality, as an organisation we will be that much stronger as a result of this learning experience.

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