From Joe Wicks to community art: One school’s response to the coronavirus crisis

Written by: Helen Frostick | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Schools and teachers across the country have been pushed to their limits in maintaining provision during the coronavirus closures. Headteacher Helen Frostick gives us an insight into the kind of provision her school offered during the first few days of closure.

This article considers three aspects of managing the coronavirus pandemic in school: the parents, the staff and the pupils.

The parents

Overall, parents and carers are overwhelmingly supportive of all of our efforts to keep a provision open at school while trying to offer practical support for off-site learning.

We have ceased to run as a school. We are care providers now at the frontline, trying to keep the frontline workers at work. We are also providing provision for our most vulnerable pupils.

However, we need to try to maintain a sense of community. I recognise that communication from school is a lifeline to children and parents. As headteacher of a primary school, I will try to communicate directly at least once a week with the parents for as long as I can with a letter of support and ideas for off-site learning.

The website is our daily communication channel as to our status and includes an update banner across the front page. As I write this, the banner reads: “School is CLOSED – but open for a limited number of identified pupils.” The advice to parents is to stay at home and the vast majority are taking that advice.

However, some parents are asking that their child comes to school for a variety of reasons. This is a judgement call. The officially permitted attendees include, of course, vulnerable children, those with an Education, Health and Care Plan, or where parents/carers are key workers.

Some parents have approached school with special circumstances. Where this is possible, my stance is to be sympathetic and supportive. However, I have also been honest and up-front in saying that this might need to change in the future. When this crisis is over, we will be rebuilding our school communities and relationships. People will not forget how you handled this challenge and treated them and their children.

In my early headship career, I had the experience of an overnight evacuation due to an asbestos accident. It was three weeks before Christmas. We could not re-enter the building until the beginning of February.

I was allocated office space in a local authority building to field all of the calls and emails coming in from staff, parents and governors. Everybody was terrified and rudderless.

A community activity?

When the locum builders drilled into asbestos in the kitchen ceiling, thankfully it was at the end of the school day. The vast majority of pupils and staff had gone home, but not everyone. This caused immeasurable anxiety.

After Christmas, with governor support and the cooperation of our local schools, the pupils and staff were distributed across the five closest primary schools. The staff had to deal with having no resources, as they could not access the school building.

I spent my time divided between running my little headquarters in the local authority building and visiting the pupils and staff. Each class produced a frieze of art work to bring into school on their first day back when we eventually reopened. We had lost everything in the asbestos “clean-up”. Our stock cupboard was completely bare and display boards ripped off the wall. We created a hall display using all of the pieces. It was of great comfort and cheered us up when we slowly started to rebuild our community.

We recently saw families creating rainbow pictures and putting them up in house windows in support of hope and our key workers. We are doing this in school now and urging our families to do likewise. We will make a huge frieze of them when we come back.

The staff

This is where the strength in the team shines through. Without exception the staff have stepped up.

We formed four teams of five, each led by a senior member of staff. We have split the week in to a three-day and a two-day shift so two teams work each week and have the following week off. In each team, there is an admin and a first-aider. The staff communicate through their team leader who then communicates through me.

Staff not working a shift are at home creating lesson plan ideas and ways to keep the children occupied.

The day feels long with breakfast at 8am and home time at 5pm. We ensure social distancing activities for the children and the staff. This has been a challenge.

Activities separate rather than unite which is alien to how we work. Previous ideas of planting seeds, caring for the duckling, and art activities have been ditched.

We have been building up our capacity to offer teacher-directed home learning. Our IT provider has been working with my IT subject lead to create a structure for the day at home with the year groups separated into pairs – for example, year 5 and 6 have the same suggestions for home learning activities.

The staff working from home are helping to build up ideas using the wide range and ever increasing number of resources that are being made available online by a range of organisations (see Headteacher Update’s recent compendium of resources for home schooling).

For example, a lovely Easter activity will be to create an Easter Garden and to decorate eggs. We will invite the parents and children to send in images of their endeavours to post up on the school website. This will help us to keep the community spirit alive.

The pupils

A third of our pupils accessing the in-school provision are vulnerable children and two-thirds are the children of key workers. They are divided in to key stage ages to keep the groups small.

Joe Wicks – aka The Body Coach – has been a life-saver with his daily half-hourly work out on YouTube – the three groups are in three different rooms for this activity.

The three groups then rotate around online learning in the library, each child using a device labelled with their name – they use the same device every day. There are then outdoor activities and painting. Each child has a pack of materials to use every day to avoid the sharing of pens and pencils. In the afternoon, the activities include gardening, cooking skills and outdoor games.

Lunch is now a packed lunch following the closure of our kitchens. The children sit on benches to eat, spaced two metres apart.

The children arrive and leave at different times and this flexibility helps us to maintain social distancing at drop-off and pick-up. Like one of the big supermarket chains, we have drawn a queueing line for parents with spots marked out every two metres.

Daily developments

As I write this, we have just learnt that due to dwindling numbers we are to be placed in a hub with four other schools. Things are changing so fast – today we had only one child accessing our provision.

This takes me back to my previous experience of being refugees. However, this feels completely different. We will do what we have to do to retain our individual community identity while serving other schools for the common good at this time.

Our staff will willingly join staff at other schools on the newly worked rotas for as long as they are able.

  • Helen Frostick is a National Leader of Education and headteacher of St Mary Magdalen’s Catholic Primary School in south London. Email h.frostick@st-marymagdalens.richmond.sch.uk. To read her previous articles for Headteacher Update, visit http://bit.ly/2ILS0Od

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