On returning to school… (another pandemic post)

We all know that there is nothing more frustrating than decisions about an expert field being made by non-experts. We see it all the time: business managers making decisions about numbers of ICU beds in hospitals; politicians making statements about immunology and disease control; rooms of men making decisions about women’s reproductive choices.

Now it’s the turn of teachers to be on the receiving end of opinions and decisions being made by people with little to no understanding of their day-to-day work.

The COVID-19 pandemic has swept across the world in the first few months of 2020, bringing much of the world to a standstill as our health services battled to gain control of this new disease. School buildings in many countries were closed as countries went into lockdown – a key move in slowing the rate of transmission of the disease. Teachers swiftly did everything they needed to continue the education of the children by moving online, with some schools remaining ‘open’ for children of frontline and essential workers. The physical school buildings may have closed, but education certainly did not stop.

Here in Vietnam, it was 16 weeks before children were allowed to set foot in any of our school buildings once more. And when they did, it was after an intense level of planning and preparation to ensure we had done everything possible to avoid being the source of another wave of infection. Most importantly, children did not return to school until there were zero community-based infections in the country. Not when they had started the downward slope in community-based infections. No, they waited until they had hit ZERO.

Even in this knowledge, the stringent measures and rules we must follow are lengthy: masks at all times, keep a minimum of 1.5m apart as much as possible, no mixing of groups or classes in case of cross-contamination, temperature checks and sanitising on a regular basis, shifts for snack/break/lunch, wash and disinfect all toys and resources every day… to name a few. This isn’t school as we know it.

One of the key parts of a teacher’s role, from Early Years to Sixth Form, is pastoral care. Our children have gone through one of the most strange and unusual experiences of their lives through the school closures and I know that one of the main things that a lot of my fellow teaching colleagues have been focused on is ensuring that the mental health of their students is looked after. Throughout the time I was teaching online, one of the highlights of my day (and my students) was our call. Seeing my screen fill up with the faces of my little ones not only helped me, but I know it helped them as they saw and interacted with each other. Isolation is hard for grown adults never mind children going through their various stages of development so connection was key throughout these months.

Copyright of The British Vietnamese International School Hanoi

On return to school, suddenly that connection that we had worked hard to maintain was altered. I met children at the front gate wearing a mask and I could tell they had trouble telling who I was, their little eyes growing wide as they got their temperature checked and sanitised their hands, then hearing my voice from behind my mask and relaxing a little. Distancing and keeping children apart from their friends and teachers who they haven’t seen in months felt cruel. I spent much of my day repeating the same phrases over and over – phrases I would never say in normal, everyday teaching: Keep your mask on. Stay apart from your friends. No, you can’t play there. I teach children who do not speak English as their first language so they largely rely on reading my facial expressions to help with understanding me – this is desperately hard to do from behind a mask. The children, who are used to moving between rooms and spaces, exploring and discovering different areas, are now confined to the same four-walls for the majority of their day. They have moved from one form of isolation to another.

This is not sustainable. This is not good for children in the long-term. Thankfully, because of the approach taken here in Vietnam, the social distancing measures in schools are already being relaxed and, as it becomes clear that we are ‘safe’ for now, we will be able to return to relatively normal very soon. For example, this week we do not have to wear masks in the classroom. In a few weeks time, we will be able to mix small groups of children once more.

This is only possible because we waited until the time was right to open schools. Too early and these measures would have to stay in place for much longer, causing extended emotional distress to our already traumatised children. Waiting until it was completely safe and there was minimal risk of the infection coming into our school was key.

I have read many a non-teacher or non-educator passing comment about how countries must open schools as soon as possible and how ‘behind’ children will be because of being out of the classroom. This is nonsense. No classroom has children all at the same level. No cohort of children are all achieving at the same rate. Teachers are experts at meeting children where they are in their learning and development, adapting to what they need, and bringing them forward in their learning no matter where they start. Children are never behind – they develop, grow and learn at their own rate and, to be fair, are absolute knowledge sponges who will always, always catch up. Teachers know this and continue to work with children where they are, whether in or out of the classroom.

The decision to open schools should only be taken when you can almost completely guarantee that the risk of any infection is the lowest it can be. Many countries considering opening schools right now are in no position to be able to guarantee that. I can’t begin to imagine the further damage that might be caused by rushing into this. As a teacher coming through to the other side of all of this, I feel like my hindsight is 20-20.

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