Tackling new challenges: How Covid-19 is changing education
23 March 2021
In his second article on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on education, John Viner looks at lessons learned and tackling new challenges.
• During the continued Covid-19 pandemic, circumstances can change rapidly and schools must act decisively and quickly.
• Under the 2020 Coronavirus Act, schools have a temporary duty to ensure that all pupils have equal access to the curriculum, whether in school or working from home.
• To meet the new demands of equal access to education, a blend of face-to-face and virtual lessons and meetings is here to stay.
• Schools need to use creative ways of ensuring social distancing and reducing the spread of the infection.
In my last article, I looked at how schools had tackled the challenge of remote education during lockdown. I talked about the changing education landscape to which schools returned, including the consequences of the lockdown, such as the widening of the gap of disadvantaged pupils. I also mentioned the positives, such as using Zoom for governor meetings, and the advantages of online learning for pupils.
Following the return to school, the challenges of Covid-19 for education continue. Schools are building on lessons learned from the pandemic, with new challenges arising.
At the time of writing, the lifting of lockdown and the continuing Covid-19 crisis is currently manifesting in regional variations in the infection rate, with the virus still ripping through some communities, while others are seeing a slower increase in the economic and social impact. One thing is clear, however, and that is that teachers have become frontline workers. This article is a personal reflection on how schools were coping with the ‘great return’ as we reached the end of the first half term of the academic year.
I happen to live in an area where infection rates are low. However, at the time of writing, no fewer than forty schools in the authority – both primary and secondary – are affected and have either had to close or send whole classes or year groups home. One thing we have learned is how to react very quickly. The stories of these forty schools are all very similar – as soon as they have had news of an infection, parents have been contacted and the relevant class or year bubble told to self-isolate for 14 days. The faster schools react, the faster pupils are protected. Headteachers have learned that reassurance is as important as action. In the words of the headteacher of one of our local secondaries, ‘This is an isolated individual case in a year group bubble, so please don’t be alarmed. But it is a reminder that we all need to remain vigilant, both in school and the wider community.’
The second thing we have learned is how to manage bubbles within the school through a series of carefully timetabled and planned measures. I am chair of a two-form entry primary, where the timetable of staggered arrivals and departures, breaks and mealtimes, toilets and washing, is a complex but effective plan. It took a few days for parents to really understand how to work with the school, but they did and, despite some initial worries about distancing, are managing very well. We must appreciate that, given the likelihood of a continuing pandemic, and with a vaccine not yet being available to everyone, we will have to live with this for some time to come. For our secondaries, managing movement around the site, mask wearing and distancing are all proving stressful for staff and leaders alike.
As senior tutor for a large ITT provider, I am privileged to have an insight into many different schools across all phases and sectors. We are learning how to support our trainees and teacher apprentices without actually going into schools. One of my tutor team went into a large independent school early in the term. He reported that the school did everything it could to protect him. He was able to carry out a lesson observation while being screened off from the class. However, one female student was visibly suffering from a cold and, when he got home, my colleague found that he too was developing cold symptoms. As he said, ‘it could easily have been coronavirus’. So, we are developing ways in which we can engage with lesson observation through video, through Iris Connect and, more commonly, through a proxy observer in school. This may protect our tutors, but it reminds us that school staff are daily exposed to potential infection.
The DfE tells us that teachers now have access to testing. According to their website,
‘From 26 August, all schools and FE providers were sent an initial supply of 10 test kits and since 16 September have been able to order more. Having a test at a testing site will deliver the fastest results. These test kits distributed to schools should only be used in the exceptional circumstance that a student, teacher, or staff member becomes symptomatic and you believe they may have barriers to accessing testing elsewhere. Access to these tests will help symptomatic staff who test negative and are not close contacts of confirmed cases, to get back to work as soon as they feel well enough.’
Sadly – and maybe unsurprisingly – the reality is not always the same as the intention. In a bizarre Catch-22, our school did not receive the initial ten tests. Since we had not been recorded as using these ten tests, we could not order more. Following the intervention of our local MP, the tests eventually turned up. However, these tests remain for exceptional use, they are not the regular testing that many teachers say they need in order to keep safe. This is especially true for special schools where close contact with pupils may be more necessary than in a mainstream setting. One of my sons teaches in a special school for students with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties. At the beginning of September, I asked how the first day went. ‘Okay’, he said, ‘only three holds’. Fortunately, as the creator and leader of their Forest School, he has managed to construct outside classrooms, where distance and ventilation are no problem. But winter approaches…
The third big lesson that we have learned from lockdown is that a blend of face-to-face and virtual lessons and meetings is here to stay. Under the terms of the 2020 Coronavirus Act, schools have a Temporary Continuity Direction under which they must ensure that all pupils have equal access to the curriculum whether in school or working from home. For this reason, Microsoft Teams and Google Classroom are of increasing importance, with schools developing ever greater expertise in their use and finding ways to provide laptops to those without. In their important paper, ‘Education Reimagined’, Michael Fullan et al set out the continuing case for a hybrid model of education for the foreseeable future.
When we recently ran a robust two-day headteacher selection process at our primary school, we opted for a coronavirus-safe face-to-face model, given the importance of the appointment. One of the pre-interview tasks was for the final candidates to present governors with their vision of education in the next decade. Whatever happens in the public health emergency, it is clear that, having navigated its challenges, our schools and classrooms will be forever changed.
As I was completing this article, our headteacher called me to say that the son of one of our teachers had tested positive and he was now self-isolating. It was a simple decision, this was a matter of staff absence and no reason for closing a bubble, but an explanatory letter still had to go out to the parents of his class. However, the teacher then tested positive and the bubble had to isolate. This shows both how rapidly circumstances change and how we must act decisively and fast, but with wisdom. It may not help that Ofsted is visiting schools to review their re-opening arrangements and we wait to see if that exercise brings anything to the party.
• Remote Education Temporary Continuity Direction: explanatory note, DfE, 1 October 2020: https://bit.ly/RemoteEdTCD
• Education reimagined: The future of learning, Michael Fullan et al: https://bit.ly/35zJ0K2
Use the following items in the Toolkit to put the ideas in the article into practice:
About the author
John Viner has taught in both primary and secondary schools, with a long history of successful primary school leadership. He is now a senior tutor for an ITT provider, an S48 inspector and writer.