Head to Head

President's Perspective June 2020

Coronavirus.   Covid-19.  

As the bells rang out to usher in the new decade back in January and we joyously charged our glasses to strains of “Auld Lang Syne”, few people in the United Kingdom would have had any inkling that a silent and invisible assassin was about to make its way at stealth across the globe, infecting large numbers of the human population and causing the World Health Organisation to declare SARS-CoV-2 and the disease caused by it-Covid-19- a global pandemic. Little did we know that in a few short weeks life as we then knew it would change irrevocably and that schools would undergo a meteoric modi operandi almost overnight.

The zoonotic coronavirus made its quiet unassuming entrance in  a seafood and animal market in Wuhan, China, transmitted from a bat to an intermediary animal, most likely a pangolin, which was near a human who then handled it, became infectious and unwittingly started a catastrophic chain of contamination on a world-wide scale. The coronavirus was so called due to its crown or corona of club-shaped spikes which has been responsible for several of our common colds and more recently the deadly outbreaks of SARS and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome known as MERS. This new coronavirus –Covid-19 – was a unique strain and hitherto unknown to the medical and scientific world.                                                                             

 Covid-19 spread at an alarming rate across China, from its epicentre of Wuhan. We first learned about this coronavirus on our TV screens and tablets watching in a kind of fascinated horror as this virulent disease wreaked havoc and terror in a far off Oriental land. We witnessed scenes of people dying from this deadly disease, being cared for by medical staff in biohazard suits and we passively observed as whole communities and parts of China were quarantined and effectively shut down. We reasoned we were safe since this was happening in a country far from our own, separated by oceans and seas and thus was not on our shores. For us in the United Kingdom the diurnal rhythms of life carried on as normal in those first few weeks of the year.

We travelled to work each day, sometimes on commutes where people were herded in dirty, over-crowded train compartments, cheek by jowl, or on buses packed with schoolchildren and tourists.  We continued to work with colleagues, children and young people in classrooms and corridors and shared learning in packed assembly halls with children sitting shoulder to shoulder and side by side. We trudged wearily to the supermarket after a stressful day at work to do our weekly shop. We dined out and socialised with friends in hostelries and hotels.  We worked out in sweaty gyms and undertook yoga classes. Travel was undertaken freely to visit family and friends. Holidays were planned and diaries were full.  We did not yet know of the miasma of misery and mass disturbance to our country, lives and livelihoods which the virus was soon to unleash on us, the unsuspecting public.  

 And then, all too quickly, that potentially lethal coronavirus had silently breached the seemingly safe enclaves of our land infiltrating our workplaces; our hospitals; our care homes; our schools and even our homes. The horror borne out over the air waves, first in China, then in Italy and Spain had all too grimly become our reality and our new “normal”. Public information broadcasts showed us all how to wash our hands for twenty seconds to the tune of “Happy Birthday”. Soap and hand sanitizer were being rationed in shops whilst in schools we were being urged to wash and sanitize hands as often as possible ensuring that even our youngest learners did so too.  Members of the public were being told what to do if Coronavirus symptoms manifested themselves with whole households instructed to remain in quarantine for two weeks. Parents and visitors were being actively discouraged from stepping over the threshold of our school doors for fear of being infectious or becoming contaminated and each day the number of pupils and staff able to attend and work in schools decreased to the point where it was difficult to maintain the normal level of teaching and learning in each class. Classes had to be hastily reconfigured on a daily basis to mitigate the effects of such absenteeism. Coronavirus nomenclature subsequently evolved. Phrases such as “social distancing” and “self-isolation” had become everyday vocabulary. From Covid-19 being an unknown to the scientific world a little over five months ago, we all in school had suddenly become very familiar with its name and what it represented. We were being told to put measures in place to keep everyone at least two metres apart. Even the simple act of shaking hands or comforting a distressed child had become taboo and fraught with the potential of introducing viral spread. The virus had shown it was no respecter of borders, or of status, or indeed of privilege. It had proved its power of infectivity from prince and prime minister to biochemist and bus driver. Sadly for some it was to prove their untimely demise and it was this very real threat, now borne out in most places across the land that the decision to lockdown was made by our Governments.

We learned at a televised ministerial briefing that schools would be closing their doors for the foreseeable future with a notice period of little over two days.  There would not be a school in the land whereby staff, parents and pupils pulled out all the stops to ensure school closure would mean no end to learning and entitlement to education.  Learning packs were created, collated and distributed. Teachers had to adjust to a new way of teaching, of sharing learning at home or working in hastily adapted childcare hubs, all the while being physically removed from their learners.

This is now the new normal for schools and places of education up and down the country. Many teachers and school leaders are maintaining social as well as learning and teaching distance in a way that is both unnatural and anathema to us as educators. Staying connected has become even more vital in these last few weeks and the digitization of recent years has proved both a blessing and a curse with the rise in access to online learning and the myriad ways in which we presently   communicate via digital platforms. Meetings can now be conducted from front rooms and book-lined studies or whilst sat at kitchen tables or reposing on beds.  The use of digital technologies has also brought into crystal clear focus the inequalities which exist in our school communities. Many families have very limited or no access to either internet or devices. How we continue to engage all our learners is the question which has caused many school staff to have sleepless nights and anxiety-filled days. Not having sight of our young people for many weeks  and knowing that  families are  simply choosing not to engage or be involved  with distance schooling , despite their home circumstances,  is proving to be a real challenge and the subject of some unfair  journalistic and online opprobrium and  vilification.

Politicians use a variety of circumlocutions when asked about the thorny issues apropos releasing lockdown and the re-opening of schools. Mainstream media abounds with contradictory articles and headline statements on when schools will open again. Meanwhile we continue to run our schools remotely, without fuss or fanfare. Our teachers and staff continue to be creative and care for our learners, providing support and a modicum of stability in these strange and unparalleled times.  A large percentage of them as well as us as school leaders will be simultaneously home-schooling our own children or volunteering in childcare hubs, whilst trying valiantly to  keep  learning and teaching going for pupils and supporting parents in their efforts to help as well.

 What we can be sure of, going forward, whilst the debate about the reopening of schools continues to dominate headlines and discussion forums, that in order to keep us and our communities safe a “newer normal” will have to be instituted. Perhaps one of part-time schooling- staggering year groups and phasing lessons- but definitely a stripped back school environment which strives to promote the wellbeing of all whilst maintaining the required social distance, however difficult that will be to achieve. School leadership teams will need the support of local authorities and others and given enough time to plan and prioritise such social distancing measures, whilst keeping learner and staff wellbeing and our self-care at the heart of everything we do.

 That then, will be our paradoxical reality.  

Sharon McLellan