Coronavirus and education: Making the most of in-school learning (part two)

This post was written on Monday 23 March. It is the second of two blogs offering advice on staffing schools during the partial closure and on making the most of in-school learning for the children of key workers and the most vulnerable children in society.  You can read part one here

How will we staff schools?

At the time of writing, the government has not issued any guidance to headteachers on how they should staff their schools to cater for the children of key workers as well as their most vulnerable children.

On Sunday 22 March, they simply had this to say: “Schools should discuss [staffing] with their local authority or trust when making decisions about school capacity.”

They have, however, confirmed that all teachers will continue to be paid as normal and that schools will be funded to pay staff to work over Easter.

In the absence of such guidance, some schools are mandating all staff, except those who are self-isolating, to continue to go to school; others are asking for volunteers and making it clear no one has to attend if they don’t want to.

Whilst, of course, some contextual factors need to be factored into every decision – there’s no perfect solution to fit every school – I think it’s unhelpful the government hasn’t provided more concrete, evidence-based advice how to manage the school workforce during this difficult and dangerous time.

We should always remember that this is an anxious time for everyone. Some staff will be genuinely worried about attending school for fear of contracting the virus and passing it onto elderly or infirm family members at home. Others will fear they could already be infected but without symptoms and could therefore pass the virus on to pupils who, in turn, could spread the virus to their key worker parents.

It is a lot of responsibility for any school-worker to carry on their shoulders. We need to tell our colleagues that it is ok to be scared, it is natural to be uncomfortable and to be conflicted about what’s right: attending school or staying home.

There is no right answer. But, as with all things, humanity, understanding, patience and pragmatism are key. And as essential as always, three things: communication, communication, communication.

I cannot advise you what to do. But I would remind you why we are partially closing schools: If children can stay safely at home, they should, to limit the chance of the virus spreading. The fewer children making the journey to school, the lower the risk that the virus can spread and infect vulnerable individuals in wider society.

Surely, then, the same applies to school staff. The fewer adults making the journey to school, the lower the risk of spreading the virus and putting people at risk?

Therefore, my approach would be as follows:
• The school will be open only for the pupils of key workers who have no alternative, and for vulnerable pupils who might otherwise be in harm’s way
• Any child that can be looked after at home, should be
• To prevent the spread of the virus, we need to minimise the number of staff on site, every colleague who can work from home, should be allowed to do so
• We need to minimise the amount of contact that all staff and pupils have with each other whilst on site, working at a safe distance of at least 2 metres where possible and avoiding social contact during breaks
• We need to ensure the site is regularly cleaned and that all staff and pupils obey the government guidance on washing their hands regularly and for at least 20 seconds
• As soon as a pupil or staff member detects symptoms of the coronavirus, we need to follow the government guidance (see below)

Staffing may be done on a rota system to ensure all colleagues get time away from school and certainly get a holiday this term.

What will pupils do?

Once we’ve staffed our schools, we need to decide what their roles will be and how we will support those pupils in school…

The most important point to note is that schools are no longer to be regarded as ‘schools’ in the traditional sense, teaching the national curriculum. To try to continue with ‘business as usual’ will be impossible with the staffing constraints we are going to face. And, perhaps more importantly, to do so would disadvantage those pupils learning at home.

Indeed, the latest government guidance, published on Sunday 22 March, said this:

“We understand that these are extraordinary times. The most important thing is that children of critical workers and vulnerable children are supervised and properly cared for at school. Emergency legislation will lift curriculum requirements for schools, giving flexibility to provide support, activities and education in the way they see fit.”

Attendance reporting procedures were also relaxed, and schools are now only expected to complete a daily spreadsheet and submit a short form by midday each day, updating the DfE on how it is responding to the coronavirus.

Though we would prefer a solution that ensured pupils continued to learn what they would have learned had the coronavirus not spread to these shores, today is a different country and we need to do things differently here.

Schools are more like community supervision hubs than schools. As such, the most helpful – and probably obvious – piece of advice I can give is that pupils in school should be doing what pupils at home have been asked to do but under teacher supervision so their parents can continue to provide the essential services we need to help protect people from Covid-19.

The latest government guidance, published on Sunday 22 March, said this about remote learning:

“We recognise that many schools have already shared resources for children who are at home and are grateful for this. DfE is working with the BBC and other partners to provide advice and support directly to parents, including online resources they can access for their children at home.”

In the coming weeks, therefore, schools may be expected to do less and there may be a national, coordinated effort to ensure children at home are given meaningful work to do and that parents are better supported in this endeavour.

In the meantime, many schools have provided work in the form of learning packs or online learning platforms and I offered some advice on remote learning in my previous article.

Whether we have provided work for pupils at home via paper-based learning packs or online learning platforms, there is no reason why the same materials cannot be accessed in school and form the basis of pupils’ learning there. Considerable time has already been dedicated to creating or collating these materials so why not utilise this for those who’ll still attend school?

Whether we ask pupils at home and those in school to use paper-based learning packs or online platforms, we need to consider if we will require pupils to process new information or solely engage in retrieval practice activities to revisit and revise prior learning. If the former, then we will need to consider how this is “taught” in school. Will we have subject specialists and is there a danger if we need to use non-specialists or unqualified teachers to deliver a disciplinary curriculum?

If we ask pupils in school to conduct independent research, or engage in discovery-style learning, how will we mitigate the risk they will encounter misleading or inaccurate information if conducting research for a project, say, and don’t know how to spot fake news? How will we counter the problem of some pupils simply not understanding new information because you are not there to assess and diagnose their progress?

As I said in my previous article on remote learning, I believe the most effective type of remote learning is retrieval practice but, of course, we can’t expect pupils to practice prior learning between now and the summer, we must introduce new information to them at some point, so we may also need to consider the use of online teaching.

If we do use online teaching for those pupils at home, can we ensure consistency and reduce teacher workload by recording or indeed broadcasting a teacher whilst they simultaneously teach pupils in school? Or can we share the same webinar or online videos to all pupils, sent home via links or on the online platform and played on whiteboards in school classrooms?

I also said last time that, in my experience, video teaching works best when we use it didactically as a means of giving explanations rather than trying to facilitate an interactive lesson. These explanations should be delivered in short chunks, with longer pauses for punctuation than we’d would ordinarily think to give when face-to-face with pupils.

Video teaching also works best when we complement the image of us talking with useful images such as diagrams and mind-maps. Some video-conferencing platforms allow you to broadcast a virtual whiteboard which we may find useful for modelling work both in school and at home.

In my previous article, I said that, if all else fails, one form of remote learning we know is effective is reading books! So, if nothing else, we should encourage pupils to read, read, and read, whether they are at home or in school.

We might consider providing access to ebooks in school and issue a device to each pupil which they alone use, and which is cleaned at the end of each day, rather than share physical books from the school library which could spread the virus.

Many popular children’s magazines and newspapers such as First News and The Week Junior have electronic versions to which we could subscribe and provide free access.

The BBC is continuing to broadcast Newsround which we could play through the whiteboard each day to educate and inform pupils, including about the coronavirus, in a child-friendly way.

The BBC is also promising to broadcast daily education programmes, and there are plenty of useful materials on YouTube including daily exercise routines for children to follow in class if we don’t have the staff or resources to deliver such sessions in person.

Reading records and tasks based on pupils’ reading can be used to encourage pupils to reflect on their reading.

And, for younger pupils, daily spellings and times table work is always time well spent.

Whatever in-school work looks like, school leaders need to be mindful of the impact on their staff’s workload and wellbeing. As I have said, this is undoubtedly – and unavoidably – a stressful time for us all and we must do all we can to limit the pressures that are exerted on our teachers. Don’t expect too much of those staff in school.

Finally…

What to do if a pupil becomes unwell whilst in school?

Depending on the numbers of pupils you continue to have in school and the number of staff you have to supervise them, it is preferable to try keep pupils as far away from each other as possible, ideally observing the 2 metre rule of social distancing recommended by scientific and medical experts. This might not always be possible, of course, but it’s worth considering.

Remember many of the pupils in school go home to parents who are doctors and nurses and other key workers who we need to protect so that they can protect our most vulnerable members of society.

If a pupil does become ill whilst in school with symptoms of the coronavirus, what should we do?

The government recommends that we send pupils home and advises us to follow the ‘staying at home’ guidance on the government’s website.

Whilst a pupil is awaiting collection from school, they should be moved, if possible and if appropriate, to a room where they can be isolated behind a closed door, ideally, with a open window for ventilation. If it is not possible to isolate a pupil, they should be moved to an area which is at least 2 metres away from other people.

If the pupil needs to go to the bathroom while waiting to be collected, they should use a separate bathroom if possible. The bathroom should be cleaned and disinfected using standard cleaning products before being used by anyone else.

If a member of staff has helped someone who was taken unwell with a new, continuous cough or a high temperature, they do not need to go home unless they develop symptoms themselves. They should wash their hands thoroughly for 20 seconds after any contact with someone who is unwell.

In most cases when a pupil or member of staff becomes ill, closure is not necessary, but this is a decision for the school.

Matt

@mj_bromley

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