In recent days, the Australian Prime Minister indicated that schools in Australia will remain open. On Sunday 22 March his announcement was as follows.
“Schools will remain open through to the end of the current school terms to support students whose parents choose to send their children to school. Victoria’s school break will commence on Tuesday 24 March 2020.
If parents choose to keep their children home from school, parents must be responsible for the conduct of the children and to ensure they adhere to the social distancing arrangements in place.
Schools will be encouraged to provide access to online and distance learning.”
This statement seems to suggest that Australian teachers are expected to provide face-to-face teaching to those students at school, and also online and distance learning for those students staying at home. It is not a workable solution to ask teachers to provide, simultaneously, both in-school and distance learning models. The only viable option that came to my mind was to provide one model–a distance learning model–with which all students can engage at home or at school.
Then yesterday the commission that governs my school and a range of others made a decision: to urge parents to keep children at home, if they can, from today, and to transition to a distance learning model over the next few days. As a result, today my Western Australian school launched (a transition to) our Distance Learning Plan.
So, how did it go?
Here are my end-of-day reflections.
As this is not a government-directed school closure, staff are continuing to work from school, which remains open for staff and for those students whose parents need them to be at school. Continuing to work from school means that staff have access to resources, the school network, the IT department, a Microsoft remote learning expert we currently have on campus to help staff with just-in-time professional learning, and one another. Helping each other through this first day has been a real bonus in terms of morale and collaboration.
A small percentage of students turned up to school and were supervised by staff on a roster as they engaged in the distance learning model. This allowed most staff to enact distance learning in empty classrooms or their offices. Students on site expressed that the feeling of a near-empty school was ‘weird’ but that it was also calm and positive. Students at school were taken out for some physical activity and were able to space out at break times. Reduced numbers of students meant that physical distancing could be practised according to the government’s guidelines.
Students showed their adaptability as they began learning from home. As well as following their teacher’s instructions and their parents’ guidance, some students took their learning into their own hands, showing initiative and collaboration. For example, a group of primary students started their own live video meeting in order to work through their spelling activities. Students used the functions of Teams and OneNote to answer each other’s questions. Some of my Year 12s told me that they had been much more productive at home than they normally are at school. Parents sent in photos of their children engaged in at-home learning.
Teachers launched into our Distance Learning Plan, communicating with students and parents, setting the work for the day, creating content, rethinking assessments and checking in with students through Microsoft Teams. Even though we have been planning for this, a sudden pivot to distance learning meant teachers confronting change head on and being ok with the risk of ‘getting it wrong’. It meant troubleshooting technology. It meant finding ways to humanise the distance learning experience. It meant colleagues helping each other, students helping each other, and students and colleagues helping one another, in a variety of in-person and online ways.
One teacher told me that moving to purely distance learning was like becoming a parent:
“You’re never really ready until it happens, and then you figure it out as you go along.”
I have previously blogged some considerations for planning for distance learning and my message to our teachers this morning was this:
“We haven’t done this before and will be learning as we go, but my tips are:
- Do your best with what you know and can do. This isn’t like ‘normal’ school and it isn’t going to mirror ‘teaching as usual’. Students will struggle with technology and motivation, as might we!
- Keep it simple. Start with the learning intentions and find efficiencies. Not every lesson needs to be video, live, technology-based or amazing.
- Trust your professional judgement. You know yourselves, your subject and your students. Do what works.
- Be kind to yourself and others. This is distance learning during a global pandemic. It is continuing our students’ education while in the midst of a major health, societal and economic crisis. There will be a multiplicity of very real challenges for students, teachers and parents during this time. Reach out for help if you need it.”
I am grateful to be part of: a school and system acting with the health, safety and wellbeing of its community in mind; a staff who are working incredibly hard and with acrobatic agility and positivity in a constantly changing professional environment; and a community of students and families who are engaging with these changing circumstances in optimistic and open ways.
Thank you to all those educators around the country and the world sharing their resources and experiences. The education hive mind is alive and well. We’re in this together and we’re better together. Stay safe.