Thoughts on Planning for the Reopening of Schools in September

 

Greetings to all principals, school leaders and teachers. This is the first in a series of blogs that we plan to post over the coming weeks and which we hope will contribute to,and perhaps help, even in some small way, to inform your deliberations and discussions on the reopening of your schools in September and the implications thereof.

We hope that you are bearing up well under the strain of working in circumstances that we could never have imagined as schools reopened for the new term on January 6th, a mere four months ago.

The very next day health officials in China announced that they had isolated the pathogen that was causing a mysterious illness and two days later the first Covid-19 related death was announced in Wuhan. While principals and teachers in Ireland busied themselves with, and complained about, the routine first-week-of-term emergencies, events were already in train on the other side of the world that would lead us to the current situation where all our previous issues and even emergencies are now framed within the one all-encompassing emergency.

We do not claim any medical expertise, so we will steer clear of the medical aspects of the discussion around the reopening of schools and concentrate on other areas that will be of concern to teachers. Decisions around when and how schools will reopen will be based on the best medical advice available at that time. This advice will be informed by a growing body of evidence that will emerge from ongoing research worldwide. There are many studies, focusing particularly on children and the virus, that are currently underway in countries across the world e.g. National Institutes of Health (U.S.) Nationwide Coronavirus Study tracking 6,000 children cross 11 cities; Canadian Paediatric Surveillance Program (CPSP) collecting data from 2,800 paediatricians and the RIVM (Dutch National Institute of Public Health and the Environment) following up 100 families where someone has contracted the virus.

Excluding the obvious health issues, here are four of the areas that will be of concern to school leaders and teachers. They are, of course, interconnected and measures put in place to address issues in one area will have knock-on effects in other areas.

  1. Organisational Issues.
  2. Social and Emotional Issues.
  3. Staffing Issues.
  4. Pedagogical Issues.

 

1. Organisational Issues

As the date for the reopening of schools looms closer it is almost certain that these issues will dominate the public discourse and occupy the minds of Boards of Management, Principals and Teachers for most of their waking hours (and some of their sleeping hours as well). The overarching concern will be the protection of the lives and the health of pupils and staff, of their families, and of the broader school community. There will, of course, be many other considerations, not least of which will be attempting to overcome the restrictions on normal social interaction and normal classroom activities in order to create a safe, secure and comforting environment for pupils, who will come to school with many fears and anxieties.

What will the landscape of school life and of teaching and learning look like, if and when schools reopen in September?

Of course it is impossible to predict but the best indication might be to look at what is happening in countries where schools have already begun opening. In all the countries where schools are already open the reopening process is gradual, limited and accompanied by a considerable nervousness. Inevitably, over the coming weeks, there will be iterations of current practice in the light of experience and research findings.

I have summarised what is happening in some of the European countries where schools are reopening. The picture is broadly similar, but with some variations e.g. temperature screening, in countries across Asia, Australasia and North America.

Denmark

  • Schools reopened for younger pupils in April and for older pupils in the second week of May;
  • Desks 2 metres apart;
  • Maximum of 10 pupils in each class;
  • Each class group taught by one teacher;
  • Each group stays together during breaks and playtime;
  • All available space, including sports halls and outdoor spaces used for teaching;
  • Hourly handwashing breaks;
  • Teachers with health issues teach online from home;
  • Some parents did not want to send their children to school at first but concerns are gradually easing for some of these parents;
  • Early indications are that reopening schools has had no impact on infection rates.

France

  • Most primary schools reopened in the week commencing May 11th;
  • Initial priority for pupils aged 5, 6, and 10;
  • Estimates of percentage of pupils who can go back to school vary regionally from 15% – 50%;
  • Teachers required to wear masks;
  • Maximum of 15 pupils to a class;
  • Parents may keep their children at home with teachers providing work for them as during lockdown;
  • Teachers alternating between face-to-face and distance teaching;
  • After one week back seven schools in northern France were closed again following the identification of approximately 70 Covid-19 cases associated with these schools. Given the incubation period of the virus the people involved may have been infected prior to the reopening of the schools. French authorities did not disclose whether the cases involved students or teachers.

Germany

  • Strict new hygiene rules;
  • Class size cut in half and pupils taught on alternate days;
  • Staggered breaks;
  • Teachers wear masks;
  • Pupils asked to dress warmly as windows and doors are left open for improved air circulation;
  • Pupils wear facemasks entering and leaving the school but not during lessons.

Netherlands

  • Primary school pupils back part time in the week commencing May 11th;
  • Class sizes and school hours cut in half;
  • Pupils distance learning for the remainder of the time;
  • Parents drop children at the school gates;
  • In some schools, teachers wear medical masks;
  • In some schools there are plastic shields around pupils’ desks;
  • In some schools there is a safe area for the teacher at the top of the class;
  • Older teachers or teachers with underlying health conditions do not have to return to work;
  • Up to 30% of parents still not sending pupils to schools in some areas.

What would the implementation of a broadly similar regime look like in an Irish school setting and what would be the implications for school management and staff?

There is a huge diversity across Irish primary schools. There are approximately 3,100 mainstream schools and 130 special schools in Ireland.

About 40% of these schools have less than 100 pupils and nearly half of those have less than 50 pupils.

Just over 40% have between 100 and 300 pupils and the remaining nearly 20% have over 300 pupils.

The diversity, of course, extends way beyond pupil numbers. There is a wide variety of school settings and a huge variation in facilities, services (e.g. broadband, ancillary staff,) and the fabric and layout of the school buildings themselves.

Here are four fictitious school settings, though they may ring a bell with some of you:

Rural 3-Teacher School

  • 68 pupils.
  • Principal teaches Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Classes.
  • Most pupils come to school by car.
  • Parents share driving.
  • Earlier school closing time for Infants.
  • Two classrooms built in the 1950’s and one new classroom added 5 years ago.
  • Older classrooms share toilets.
  • New classroom has its own toilets.
  • Broadband generally poor sometimes good. Similar for most parents.
  • Special Education Teacher shared in cluster with two other local schools.
  • School cleaner comes two evenings per week and at weekends.
  • Cleaner also cleans two other local schools.
  • No GP room.
  • Small staff room doubles as SET room.
  • One staff toilet.
Rural Town 8-Teacher School

  • 180 pupils.
  • Admin principal but may revert to class teacher in 2021 as numbers falling.
  • Most pupils come to school by car.
  • Parents share driving.
  • One school bus operated by small local company.
  • Earlier school closing time for Infants.
  • Two new classrooms with toilets added 15 years ago.
  • Remaining classrooms off single narrow corridor.
  • Older classrooms share toilet blocks.
  • Broadband generally good. Similar for most parents.
  • One Special Education Teacher based in school and one shared in cluster with two other local schools.
  • Cleaner with underlying health issues.
  • GP room.
  • Laptop trolley used to share laptops across classrooms.
  • Two staff toilets.
Urban Senior Boys’ School

  • 240 pupils.
  • Most pupils come to school by car or public transport.
  • Siblings attend adjacent Infants School and Girls Senior School.
  • Main school building 70 years old with small, poorly ventilated classrooms.
  • No classroom with own toilets.
  • Narrow circulation corridors.
  • Broadband generally good. Similar for most parents.
  • Significant number of pupils living in cramped accommodation.
  • Some pupils with significant or serious underlying health issues.
  • GP room.
  • Small play yard and larger grass play area.
  • Two staff toilets for 20 staff.
Suburban Mixed School

  • 430 pupils.
  • Most pupils come to school by car or else walk, cycle or scoot.
  • Bicycle/Scooter parking area.
  • Earlier school closing time for Infants.
  • New build five years old.
  • Large classrooms but poorly ventilated.
  • All classroom with own toilets.
  • Classrooms located on ground and first floor.
  • Small SET rooms.
  • Broadband very good in some rooms, poor in others. Similar for most parents.
  • Pupils’ living conditions generally good.
  • Some pupils with significant or serious underlying health issues.
  • GP room.
  • Very small play yard and no grass play area.
  • Two staff toilets for 30 staff.

It is clear from the above examples that it will not be possible for any set of guidelines that may be produced to be equally applicable to all school settings. While all schools will have certain issues in common there will be considerable differences across certain types of school and across individual schools, in both the issues they face, and the resources they have at their disposal.

Having taken on board all the guidelines and advice, schools will have to adapt these to their own unique set of circumstances. We have seen businesses, large and small, develop imaginative solutions to their own particular organisational issues. No doubt a similar level of ingenuity will be brought to developing solutions in schools once these issues come into sharper focus.

The following is a list of organisational issues that occurred to me in a short brainstorming session. It wouldn’t take very long to add considerably to the list but it might be a starting point for contemplating what lies ahead.

  • Familiarising staff, parents and, where appropriate, pupils with regulations, guidelines and procedures – both those that apply nationwide and those that are particular to this school;
  • Delegating responsibility for implementation and review of guidelines and procedures;
  • Revising existing school policies and procedures;
  • Dropping off and collecting pupils;
  • School transport;
  • School hygiene and cleaning regime;
  • Classroom layout and capacity;
  • Pupils eating their lunch;
  • Pupil illness and accidents;
  • Toilet breaks;
  • Playgrounds;
  • Visitors to the school;
  • Textbooks, copies, stationery, writing materials, etc.
  • Shared use of materials by pupils – books, computers, concrete manipulatives etc.
  • Shared use of equipment and facilities by teachers and other staff members – photocopiers, printers, laptop trolleys, staff rooms etc.

2. Social and Emotional Issues

Very little research has been done on the long-term mental health effects of large-scale disease outbreaks on children. We do not know how children will ultimately remember this period in their lives.

It is almost certain that, when children return to school in September, the pandemic will still be with us, and neither they, nor we, will know how, or when, it will end. If the government’s Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business has been rolled out on schedule as planned, children will by then have had approximately three weeks of relative freedom to associate with their wider family circle and with friends. However, by that time they will have spent over five months away from school and will have spent a considerable portion of that time in varying levels of isolation, deprived of their normal routine and opportunities for play.

What effects will all this upheaval have on children and how will these effects manifest themselves in school? We have put together another list and, as before, most of the items on the list will be obvious to teachers and teachers will find it easy to extend the list. Perhaps it can be a starting point for discussion.

Pupils

  • A sense of isolation from friends and school;
  • Concerns about their own health and the health of family members;
  • Particular concerns about grandparents and older relatives;
  • Children will have picked up on parents’ anxiety;
  • Fears arising from exposure to horror stories about deaths in other countries;
  • Sudden and extreme changes to their normal daily routine;
  • Some children will have suffered a bereavement where a member of their immediate or extended family died of Covid-19;
  • Some children will have suffered a bereavement where a relative may have died of causes unrelated to Covid-19 but where the normal funeral or grieving process could not take place;
  • Some will have been separated from close family members who were forced to self-isolate for a period of time;
  • Children of frontline workers may have had reduced contact, or periods of no contact, with a parent;
  • Issues relating to diet and lack of a routine for physical exercise and games;
  • Physical manifestations of anxiety;
  • Sadness at missing out on First Holy Communion or Confirmation;
  • Contrast between the experience of children living in spacious houses with large gardens and those in small apartments or overcrowded conditions;
  • Contrast between the experience of children in homes where there were no financial worries and those living in homes where parents were laid off or lost their jobs completely;
  • Some children will have had a – relatively speaking – happy experience, with more family engagement, more time for family activities and a rebuilding of family relationships;
  • All other problems children may have will be amplified if they have been living in a stressful home environment;
  • The overall effects will almost certainly be most damaging for those children who were already disadvantaged.

There will also be a number of children who will not return to school, either because they have underlying health issues, or because their parents are unwilling to allow them to return.

Parents

All parents will have concerns about sending their children back into schools. The reopening of schools will likely take place amid heightened public debate and conflicting opinions. Public sentiment may be fragile and parents will be looking to teachers for reassurance.

The experience in other countries would suggest that some parents will refuse, at least initially, to send their children to school. Schools will need to treat these parents empathetically and accommodation will need to be made to provide the greatest possible level of engagement with these children.

This will also apply to parents of children with underlying health issues. These children may not be permitted to participate in face-to-face teaching and learning.

Some parents will themselves have health issues or they may have close family members with health issues and will fear infection being brought into the family from school.

Many parents will have experienced heightened stress and anxiety levels due to economic hardship, loss of employment, bereavement or family relationship issues.

There may also be some sense of relief for some parents that they no longer have to bear as much of the burden of responsibility for teaching their children.

Teachers

Many teachers, of course, are themselves parents and will share all their worries and concerns.

Pupils, and perhaps parents also, will look to teachers for emotional support.

Teachers will be attempting to elicit what children are actually feeling as distinct from projecting the feelings of adults onto them.

Teachers will be trying to keep the children’s world as normal as possible in an abnormal situation. They will feel an expectation that they project a calm, composed and steadying image, though they may feel anything but calm underneath – the image of the swimming swan comes to mind!

In order to be effective in all their roles and in all that will be expected of them, teachers need, in the first instance, to look after their own health and wellbeing. It might be worthwhile to consider what supports might be put in place for teachers. The support of colleagues, either in the same school, or in some network of local or similar schools, could be invaluable. But there may be scope for some more formalised support structures.

3. Staffing Issues

  • It is likely that the coming school year will be a year like no other for sick-leave – the days of going to school with cold or flu symptoms are over;
  • There is already an issue for many schools in getting substitute cover and this situation will undoubtedly exacerbate the problem;
  • Will schools be able to employ substitute teachers as heretofore or will that be viewed in the same terms as agency staff going from care home to care home?
  • There may also be an issue with EPV days, and whether or not Boards of Management will be able or willing to allow EPV days in the current climate;
  • In order to cover for teacher absences for which substitute cover is not allowed, or where no substitute teacher is available, it will be impossible to divide out classes as has been the custom in many schools.
  • There may be considerable staff disruption in some schools if teachers who have completed the required number of years’ service decide that it is time retire. Schools may find that they have lost valuable experience, more particularly if the retirees are Principals or part of the in-school management team.

4. Pedagogical Issues

Up to March 13th last, schools were carrying on as normal. Engagement with IT generally, and distance learning in particular, varied widely between and within schools. There was a widespread acceptance of the desirability of greater use of IT for planning, communicating, teaching and learning. However, there was no easy roadmap for schools and no standard platform for schools to use. Principals or individual teachers frequently became advocates and made huge progress in bringing staff members with them, using a variety of platforms and applications. Sometimes that advocate moved on to another school and the scaffolding that many teachers required was gone. This doesn’t even begin to paint a picture of the complexity of factors driving and inhibiting schools in engagement with IT.

And then came the closure of schools over a weekend and the world of the teacher was turned on its head. Cataclysmic events down through history have been catalysts for accelerating societal change. Many aspects of life never return to the way they were. That great thinker, Seymour Papert, often pointed out that one of the institutions that had consistently resisted sudden change was the school. He would illustrate this by showing workplace photographs from one hundred years ago and from the present day, adding that one of the most easily recognisable workplaces was the classroom. However, we believe that this event may be different.

In that week back in March, where engagement with IT was concerned, teachers found themselves, not so much jumping in at the deep end as being catapulted into it. Being the resourceful people that they are, they surfaced and began swimming. At first it may have been more of an instinctive dog paddle than an elegant front crawl but, with the support of colleagues and positive feedback from parents, many teachers can be justifiably proud of the rapid progress they made in implementing a distance learning programme. Being able to plan and teach online is no longer a desirable option for some future date but a necessity now and into the future.

There has been much media discussion around the whole area of the sudden transition to working from home. Occasionally there has been some unfavourable comment comparing the response of teachers with that of employees in other sectors. All these discussions have failed to mention one very significant difference between other employees and teachers. If an employee of a multinational IT company; a government department; an insurance company or an engineering firm wants to work from home, they log in to the company or department IT system and they are up and running. There is no such single system or platform for schools and neither is there a system administrator or a tech support team.

Up to now, and until the end of the current school year it has been the priority of schools to get pupils engaged in their learning at home; to provide activities that incorporate normal home activities and the home environment into their learning; to encourage parents in supporting their children’s learning and to maintain the children’s relationship with the school and with classmates.

However, in September schools will need to examine how they intend to proceed in the longer term and how they are going to plan for curriculum implementation and integration in what will be an uncertain and evolving situation. They will need to develop realistic and flexible plans and will need to be nimble in response to what may be a rapidly changing environment.

On the positive side, many schools will have seen much greater engagement of parents with their children’s education and there may well be a greater level of mutual appreciation of the complexity of the respective roles of teachers and parents in children’s learning. Schools may be able to build on this new atmosphere of collaboration. There may also be a greater willingness to maintain a higher level of online planning, teaching and learning.

Schools that have implemented an online learning or distance learning programme will want to carry out some evaluation of the effectiveness of their programme. There would have been no time to plan for such a programme; no time for professional development for teachers; no time to develop a standardised approach across the school; no time to even establish what the goals of the programme were.

What will the teaching landscape look like and how might schools plan for that?

Once again the only reliable indicator at present is what is happening where schools have already opened. Once again there is a list coming on! And once again teachers will have little problem adding their own items to this list.

Some of the following might be features of school life for some, or all, of the next school year:

  • Classes divided into two (or more?) groups with a maximum of 10-15 in each group;
  • Groups attending school on alternate days or two days per week;
  • Each group staying together all day and taught by one teacher;
  • Pupils attending for half days instead of full days;
  • Perhaps pupils attending two days per week with one day dedicated to distance learning;
  • Reduced amount of face-to-face teaching time;
  • Pupils with health issues not attending school but with a distance learning programme in place;
  • One day/half day dedicated to face-to-face teaching of pupils with special education needs;
  • Prescribed learning programmes around hygiene, health and wellbeing;
  • A blended learning programme for all so that pupils not attending school can have some measure of equality of access to education and so that schools can respond rapidly in the event of a sudden school closure or a class having to self-isolate;
  • Teachers with health issues not attending school but continuing to teach remotely.

Curriculum Planning and how the Primary Planning Tool (PPT) can help

The prolonged closure of schools and the restrictions imposed on children during the lockdown have caused much disruption to their lives and to their learning. It will be important that schools, after the initial phase of reopening is behind them, turn their attention once again to teaching the curriculum.

Teachers have often noted that some pupils regress over the summer holidays. In the United States this phenomenon is known as “Summer Learning Loss” and seems to effect proficiency levels in reading and, to a greater extent, mathematics. The research evidence for this in Ireland is mixed. However, it would be prudent for teachers to anticipate that differentiation will be an even more crucial component of their planning than normal. After all pupils will have been out of the routine of school for the equivalent of three summer holidays.

Returning to teaching the curriculum subjects will help restore a sense of normality and security for pupils – and no doubt also for teachers. At that stage teachers will need to have developed Long-term Plans, Short-term Plans and to resume reporting progress in their Cuntais Míosúla.

We referred earlier to the lack of standardised platforms for schools. We believe that, in the area of curriculum planning, the Primary Planning Tool has the potential to be that platform. It operates equally well at a whole-school level or at an individual teacher level, whether teachers are planning and teaching from school, from dispersed locations at home or are operating a blended face-to-face and online system. The Primary Planning Tool operates efficiently even where broadband is at a less than ideal level.

When teachers begin their planning they will be planning in an uncertain and evolving environment.

  • Plans will need to be easily accessible, flexible and easily editable.
  • Teachers will need to be able to create, refine and use their plans from any location and from any device so, ideally, they will need to be cloud based.
  • Ideally teachers might want to hyperlink their favourite websites and their own school or individual resources e.g. worksheets; tests; poems; songs, etc. so that they have everything they need in one place and then could teach directly from their plans.
  • Principals will need to be able to track curriculum planning and reporting across the school, preferably in real time and without having to wade through emailed documents.
  • A standardised approach to planning across the school will make it easier to be flexible when there are unexpected teacher absences, where teachers have to teach remotely or where teachers may have to move between classes or half classes where classes are split.

And that is where the Primary Planning Tool can help. It can accommodate all those requirements and more. The platform works exactly the same from home as from school.

Primary Planning Tool Features

  • The Primary Planning Tool (PPT) facilitates the creation of cloud-based Long-term Plans, Short-term Plans and Cuntais Míosúla;
  • All plans are created, accessed, edited and stored in the cloud;
  • All plans are live working documents that can be edited live at any time;
  • There is no software to download; the Primary Planning Tool operates directly from your browser;
  • The curriculum is pre-loaded into the PPT – including the new Primary Language Curriculum and a leagan Gaeilge for Gaeltacht schools and Gaelscoileanna;
  • All plans are auto-archived at the end of the school year and available for future reference or to reuse;
  • Create curriculum-based Long-term Plans with links to useful websites and online resources;
  • Create Short-term Plans directly from your Long-term Plan;
  • Add annotations and Teaching Notes as required;
  • Add Differentiation, Methodologies, Resources and Assessment from our pre-loaded databases;
  • Create your own Themes, link them to various subjects across the curriculum and apply them to Short-term Plans;
  • Create your Cuntas Míosúil directly from your Short-term Plan(s);
  • Create Themes and integrate them into your Short-term Plans;
  • Submit Cuntais Míosúla and Long-term or Short-term Plans (if required) to the Principal with one click;
  • Teachers at the same class levels can collaborate on Long-term Plans using Templates;
  • Align the Primary Planning Tool with the curriculum content of your Plean Scoile for each subject for each class level so that Plean Scoile, Long-term Plans, Short-term Plans and Cuntais Míosúil are all integrated;
  • There is a companion mobile app to access Short-term Plans.

Next Blog

In the next blog post

  • We will take a look in more detail at how the Primary Planning Tool(PPT) can help existing users and prospective users to create co-ordinated, integrated and flexible curriculum-based plans.
  • For existing users, we will explain how you can use Templates to share or collaborate on Long-term Plans; how you can edit Templates and save them as your own Long-term Plan and how you can add annotations and weblinks to your plans.
  • We will also explore how schools might begin to embark on a process of assessing the effectiveness of their online learning programme.

We will finish off where we started, back in that first week in January, and hoping that one day not too far hence the problems you had in your classrooms then will be the problems you have once again:

“She’s wearing my school jumper.”

“He ate the top off my pencil.”

“They called me a bad word.”

“Mammy said those sums are too hard for me.”

“Me lunch is in the back of Daddy’s car.”

“He was going to hit me so I just hit him back first.”

The old normal!

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