Writing from London, headteacher John Hayes shares his school’s experiences of going in and out of lockdown, making the best of remote schooling, and dealing with uncertainty. It is a story that AEU members will find all too familiar.
I have always known the staff at Gospel Oak Primary were special people with a real moral purpose. I didn’t realise quite how special until the world changed.
The timing of all of this has become a bit of a blur. A mixture of complex events, changing government directives and personal emotional challenges has led me to a bizarre sense that perhaps this never really happened at all. And yet, I do know the whole thing became real in March 2020. Our Prime Minister Boris Johnson had made the threat of a pandemic sound relatively trivial up until that point. His response to world events and the horror stories predicted by eminent scientists was pretty laid back. No one was quite sure what to make of it.
Then all of a sudden it got serious. The more serious it got, the more confusing the government messaging. Guidance for schools was incoherent at worst and unworkable at best. Always too little too late. Suddenly, we had to close. But not really close. We had to make provision for the children of critical workers and those too vulnerable to stay at home for extended periods. We had to move all our teaching online. We needed a plan and we had a couple of days to come up with it. We needed rotas, meetings, laptops.
Despite the rest of the country being told to stay at home to save lives, critical workers – including those working in schools – were asked to ignore that and quite literally put themselves in the path of the virus.
This was when my amazing staff became superheroes. Everyone was ready to be on the rota to come into school. Despite the rest of the country being told to stay at home to save lives, critical workers – including those working in schools – were asked to ignore that and quite literally put themselves in the path of the virus. Not one team member protested.
We had 20 or so children each day, rattling around a school built for 400. Each day began with communal exercise led by British TV fitness coach Joe Wicks. Then we moved on to Google Classroom or play-based learning activities. Teachers worked in year groups to organise online learning, mirrored for on-site students. Activities were introduced via video, with teachers and teaching assistants on hand throughout the day.
If we hadn’t seen a student for a few days, pastoral calls were made. We tried to phone each family every few weeks to check how they were doing. We began doing Zoom assemblies so that at least we could see the children occasionally, and they could see each other.
But not every child had a device or internet connection. How would they access the online learning on Dad’s old smartphone? So, another member of the staff team volunteered to mastermind the allocation of the school Chromebooks. We invited parents to collect a machine – passing it through a window to ensure social distancing – hoping it would eventually return with its new owner, and that both would be in one piece.
Despite all the fear and uncertainty, the school staff carry on regardless. They do it for the children.
Next, how to feed the children eligible for a free school meal? Food parcels were provided by our catering company and we arranged for parents to collect packages. To convince the government to provide for these kids during the holiday, we needed a premiership footballer, Marcus Rashford, to step up and embarrass the Prime Minister into action. And so, families got food vouchers to use when shopping.
The months wore on. Lockdowns came and went. We opened to a few year groups. Some parents were relieved, others too scared to send their children.
From the outset of the pandemic, the National Education Union has shown tremendous leadership and support for its increasing membership. Utilising members’ newfound willingness to join meetings via Zoom (with one online union meeting gaining 400,000 participants), the union has provided timely advice and conducted a high-profile campaign to ensure that the views of all school employees are given national recognition.
Months later, and we are all back in the classroom. The government message is that it might be all over – or it might not. The rules are about to vanish. But the new Delta variant is rampaging. Staff and children are testing positive again. Year groups are going home, returning to online learning. And despite all the fear and uncertainty, the school staff carry on regardless. They do it for the children – every day, all day, no matter what. The parents love them for it. And so do I.