Recovery: Finding your school's Covid-keepers

Written by: Suzanne O’Connell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

We have a new buzz phrase in education. ‘Covid-keepers’ refers to those practices and innovations developed out of necessity during the pandemic but which schools intend to keep as they Build Back Better. Suzanne O’Connell identifies 11 common Covid-keepers...


Schools and the education system can be slow to change. The practices of a lifetime are not easily jilted. However, under the threat of a pandemic, the whole system has been forced into new ways of working.

Most obviously, the need for online and blended learning has ensured that even the most reluctant teacher has become familiar with a range of technological tools. In addition, school leaders have had to re-organise timetables, schedules and major events.

Some of these new arrangements have been disastrous for the culture and climate in our schools. Some of our pupils have found the new rules difficult and lockdown learning has presented many challenges – not least regards digital divide, safeguarding and engagement with learning. But there have been many surprises – some practices and innovations that have been revolutionary. So, what are schools intending to keep when the pandemic subsides and life returns to “normal”?


1, Edtech expertise

Having mastered online classes, sharing homework tasks, marking and giving feedback online to name but a few skills, many schools are keen not to lose the expertise their staff have developed. So a priority now is planning for how these skills and approaches might be integrated into a more regular school day.

Platforms such as Google Meet, Teams, and Zoom have clear potential for longer term use within and between schools. Pupils from different schools can work together and “meet” on shared projects. This can allow academy chains and clusters to bring students together from across different sites and settings in a productive way. Even within schools, there are new opportunities for pupils to share learning, with teacher recorded video explanations, children working on the same document at the same time, changes to homework practices and more.


2, Virtual meetings & CPD

Whether it is between schools or within schools, many have found that holding meetings virtually has saved time and allowed staff greater flexibility. This is particularly the case where travel is usually involved, especially for school leaders. Meetings for SEND pupils, staff meetings held on Teams, and multi-service meetings have been easier to facilitate virtually. An added benefit is that they can be recorded for staff who cannot be present or for later review.

There are times when a face-to-face meeting is important and schools and social services, for example, will want to be selective about the use of a virtual option. However, there is no doubt that some routine meetings, particularly for headteachers, might be more conveniently hosted virtually with no loss of content and a significant saving of time.

This new way of working has opened up opportunities for CPD too, including collaboration between schools and engagement with experts across the world. Attending online CPD events is also much easier and cheaper for school staff (no travel or cover expenses, and cheaper delegate prices).


3, Family engagement

There has been a clear reduction in the boundaries and barriers between home and school. Many have said that the biggest positive to come from the pandemic is stronger relationships with parents and carers. Schools will be doing all they can now to maintain these channels of communication, and technology will once again be at the heart of these efforts. Among the keepers will be an increased level of contact with families, phone calls home, or communication via other means. Key to this is the revolution of parents’ evenings...


4, Virtual parents’ evenings

Many schools were happy to lose the traditional parents’ evening with its scheduled five-minute time slots that have been the planning nightmare for many teachers over decades. There has been a big thumbs up to parents’ evenings conducted either through online meetings or by telephone. Some schools are likely to offer the option for parents of a face-to-face, virtual or telephone meeting from now on. Some schools have chosen to stagger their virtual meetings over a few days to give teachers and parents more flexibility and have found this less stressful for staff and more relaxed for parents.


5, Blended learning

One of the first questions to be asked as remote learning took off was: “Have we seen our last snow day?” No longer must snow days, burst water pipes or local elections mean that a school becomes paralysed for a day or more.

Likewise, a long-term illness or enforced stay at home is no longer the obstacle it used to be. Those who do find it difficult to come into school, for whatever reason, can be better supported in this new world. Of course, we must also recognise that there are times when having a breather can be beneficial (whisper it quietly, but building a snowman with your family is probably just as important as keeping up with school work).


6, Online tutoring

There is certainly controversy and debate around the government’s favoured approach for education recovery – namely the National Tutoring Programme. Many school leaders felt the funding should have been given directly to schools rather than to a select few tutoring companies. However, schools have found that one-to-one or small group tutoring is beneficial for some groups of students. Might we see more of these kind of complementary approaches going forward, with schools using online tutors to support individual students with specific challenges, academic or pastoral. One school we spoke with, for example, is using tutoring to help get pupils secondary-ready. They decided to focus on improving reading and comprehension and maths fluency.


7, Hubble, Bubble...

An immediate impact of the pandemic was the splitting of groups within schools and the introduction of bubbles. Many schools have seen clear benefits to separating different year groups or even classes. One school explained how restricting the use of toilets to one year group has had benefits. Having separate and staggered break times and lunch-times has also led to calmer schools.

Another area is travel around the school, with one-way systems now common. Schools have had to look very closely at their bottlenecks and have created new ways of channelling pupils into and through shared areas. Many have found better ways of calming and controlling times of the day when behaviour could be an issue.


8, Staggered starts

Staggered arrival and home times have also been a revelation. Many schools have had to re-organise their school day, beginning with a staggered entry system. Entering and exiting the school grounds has become a far calmer process with parents and children using different points of entry and different entry times. Children have been encouraged to come onto the school site alone with less hustle and bustle as a result. As such, schools have reported a more relaxed and settled start to the school day. Another unexpected benefit for one school was that as pupils queued up outside waiting to enter the school building, teachers and staff had the chance to talk with them, take a temperature check on their mood, and spot signs of concern (withdrawal, disengagement, a change in character). This has helped with safeguarding practice.


9, Outside space

Creative use of outside space has sparked some innovative practice that schools would like to see continue. One school told us that they have used their available space, such as their front garden, in a much more creative and purposeful way. Schools’ exteriors have been requisitioned for multi-purpose use, with some installing heaters and covered areas to support outdoor learning.


10, Online school events

As with parents’ evenings, schools have moved many of their celebratory and public events online – and many intend to keep this virtual element even when the face-to-face events return. Celebration events online can mean that more parents have access to them and even if they can’t be online at that time, the event can be recorded and watched later. For the working parent who never usually gets to see their child on stage, this can be a real bonus.
Assemblies organised by group or bubble have had the advantage of children not being sat for long periods of time watching others collect their awards. Although we need to be careful that this does not lead to barriers between groups and years, it has benefits in terms of time and patience.


11, Transitions

Online meetings with new starter families and their nurseries have been a popular alternative for some schools when it comes to induction. This is particularly useful where you have several nurseries, for example, feeding into your school. Although schools are unlikely to remove the option of in-person meetings, offering a virtual meeting or tour can be beneficial for busy families. To support their new transition arrangements one school bought Reception children a teddy bear as a transitional object that they could bring between school and home. It intends to continue this practice even when Covid restrictions are removed.


Still up for debate

Not all of these Covid-keepers are agreed on by everyone and we are yet to find out what the long-term effects of keeping pupil bubbles more or less isolated will be. Will snow days really become a thing of the past? Will parents be happy with online parents’ evenings? Time will tell. What the pandemic has done, however, is provide us with an opportunity to look afresh at practices that we have always taken for granted and this can only be a good thing.

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.


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