COVID-19: Lessons Learnt During the Pandemic

Almost exactly six months ago, sitting in our School Business Meeting, with a heavy heart, I made the decision to cancel our tour of the World War I Battlefields that was due to leave 48 hours later. Our annual ski trip to the slopes of Italy had returned two weeks earlier, narrowly avoiding the awful situation that was unfolding there. I felt that to take a group of students to Belgium and France was simply a risk not worth taking.

Looking back, it was absolutely the right thing to do, but at the time it wasn’t an easy decision to make and I definitely wasn’t sure that I was right. I questioned whether or not I was being too cautious and taking away what would most certainly be a fantastic learning opportunity for students.

As Headteachers, we are often asked to make critical decisions like these – we’re asked to balance access to learning opportunities with risk almost every day… but I think most Headteachers would agree that we’ve never been asked to do it quite as much as during the past 6 months.

As I reflected on the past term and a half, it prompted me to think about what we’ve learnt about ourselves (as a school) during the COVID-19 pandemic and what practices we might continue to use when this situation is finally over… and before you ask – just like you, no, I don’t know when that might be!

School leaders are still working day-by-day, reading advice as soon as it’s published and responding to it appropriately and as quickly as we can. We’re not privy to any information before it’s published nationally so we only hear what you hear when you hear it.

Embracing online learning and support

Our school moved exceptionally quickly to identify a suitable platform (Microsoft Teams) and put together an online learning package that took into account our students’ need for structure and support during their days at home. We set a timetable for them to follow that encouraged a pattern of an early morning physical activity, followed by an academically focused morning and a more creative afternoon.

We knew that we were asking a lot of our parents to take on the responsibility of home-schooling for what felt like it was going to be a long time so we also set up ‘Class Group Teams’ for every student. We tried to replicate what would happen in a “normal” school day by providing access to the child’s Key Team through chat forums. Using the platform, we were able to offer both parents and their children daily support for learning.

Student accessing group online learning session

Given that well over 70% of our students have had extended periods of absence from school prior to getting a placement at here due to anxiety about education, it was crucial that we made sure every one of them knew that we had them in mind throughout the time that they weren’t with us on our school sites.

We were extremely concerned not to allow our students to retreat back into the old routines many of them used before coming to us to cope with the anxiety caused by the world around them. We wanted them up in the mornings and learning in the same way they would have been before the pandemic struck.

Using the online platform provided a fantastic opportunity to ensure that where a child wanted it, daily communication could take place between them and their teacher, therapist or Learning Support Worker. We were able to answer questions they had about their work, the school, the virus and, really anything else that was on their mind at that moment in time. With an open, transparent and, crucially, monitored dialogue, our staff felt confident to respond to all of the questions and concerns students presented them with.

From online learning to quizzes, diaries, competitions

The curriculum work that was set using Teams became increasingly adventurous and innovative as the weeks progressed and we all grew in confidence. We seamlessly moved from more traditional classroom-type activities into the realms of online and live quizzes, video diaries, stop-motion video production and mathematically-driven Bake-Off style competitions (don’t ask!)… and everything else in between.

Teacher delivering online learning session

Our teaching teams became ever more creative in stretching the boundaries of what can be achieved in online learning as each new week emerged and, for the most part, our students rose to the challenge.

… and therapies

Whilst the innovation within curriculum learning has been fascinating to watch, some of the most interesting developments have taken place within our Therapies provision. Our use of Tele-Therapy has been an amazing development and we’ve had some exceptional results from this mode of delivery. It’s been so successful that we’re continuing to use this strategy now that the new school year has begun. We’ve arranged for rooms to be set up as Tele-Therapy resource bases for students to access.

Student accessing Therapy Session via tele-therapies

This enforced new method of delivery had many advantages for us. Some of the gains made with the use of online communication have been that it:

◦ Allowed students to continue working on Therapy outcomes whilst not on-site

◦ Facilitated face-to-face contact for ongoing emotional support as and when needed

◦ Resulted in an unexpectedly high level of engagement from our students

◦ Enabled tutors to be able to produce resource banks of learning materials that could be accessed as required by students

In addition to the many benefits for our students, the school took the opportunity to continue to develop and improve systems for communication between our teams.

We’ve moved to a much-reduced requirement for staff to move between sites for meetings, preferring, instead, the use of online meeting forums and conversation packages. This provides improved use of every attendees’ time as after-school meetings (which previously would have been delayed by up to 20 minutes while attendees crossed the Derbyshire countryside) can now begin instantaneously.

The development that’s taken place since March will undoubtedly benefit the school greatly in the months and terms to come. We feel ready to instantly switch our offer from face-to-face in the classrooms and therapy rooms now to face-to-face via a computer or tablet screen should the need arise.

For us, then, I feel that the school lessons learnt from our time away from our desks and classrooms will indeed continue to be used for the months and years to come. And whilst none of us would have wished for what happened to our country and the wider world, at least we can say that, as a school, we made the most of the learning and development opportunities it provided us with.

About Me

I am the exceptionally proud headteacher of Alderwasley Hall School in Derbyshire. Our school transforms the lives of young people with High-Functioning ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), Asperger’s Syndrome, Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA) and Developmental Language Disorder.