Embracing distance learning and living through the lockdown

Embracing distance learning and living through the lockdown

8 July 2020

The national lockdown in 2020 will be firmly etched in the memories of the school’s 740 students. The experience, including ‘attending’ school through distance learning, will stay with them for life.

As things return to normal, St Paul’s can now reflect on this extraordinary time for both the school and the whole country.

When the Covid-19 pandemic first emerged in New Zealand, senior staff quickly mobilised.

This early preparation paid off with the school crafting and delivering a successful distance learning programme when the country went into lockdown in mid-March and the school was forced to close.

It all began when Covid-19 first arrived in New Zealand. A St Paul’s staff member self-isolated for two weeks when it was discovered family had shared a flight with a person who had one of the first cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand.

This gave the first indication of the seriousness of the situation, that a national lockdown was possible, and the school must start to plan.

Headmaster Grant Lander front-footed early pandemic conversations. The main priority was to maintain and continue to deliver a high-quality education for students.

The school was fortunate to learn from the experience of a Headmaster (a contact established through a staff member) at an independent school in Hong Kong, which was already in lockdown.

Much was learned from what he shared in a video conference call, attended by senior staff.

“He gave us some really sage advice and an imprint to help us with the realities of the distance learning,” says St Paul’s Deputy Headmaster in charge of academics, Jeremy Coley.

The main advice was to keep the structure as close as possible to the normal school day and to monitor the wellbeing of staff and students.

And it all went remarkably well, despite the unusual circumstances. “Teachers and students really rose to the challenge keeping the school climate, the culture, and the school community flourishing,” says Jeremy.

Staff and students showed a willingness to embrace the distance learning while managing their personal circumstances.

“It gave them a sense of normality, a sense of calm, order and routine which was crucial at the time.”

Director of Digital Learning, Simon Ward, was charged with mapping out how distance learning would work in practice.

For two weeks before the lockdown, he met individually with all teaching staff to coach them on using software, including the Google Meet video conferencing platform, to deliver lessons from home.

“We really wanted to focus on teachers creating engaging lessons, rather than just lecturing, and we did a lot of personal development with staff around this,” says Simon.

He also checked that staff and students had adequate internet connections and resources. To ensure systems were robust and to allow for fine tuning, the school trialled the home learning in two evening sessions.

Another key decision was to have all teachers and students linked through the simple Google calendar platform for students and staff to map out how each day looked, with hour long lessons, via video conference, with scheduled breaks. This gave structure to the day.

With the right tools and training teachers were able to confidently deliver their learning programme, with an excellent level of engagement. Senior staff dropped into these online lessons to check in how it was all going and to offer support where needed.

While most other schools opted to go into an early holiday, the early preparation meant St Paul’s went straight into distance learning as the soon as the lockdown kicked in.

This created a positive momentum from the start, which continued for seven weeks, with a break at Easter.

There were challenges on how to replicate the normal school week on an online format. In place of the daily full school Chapel or assembly, Rev Peter Rickman delivered a 15 minute online ‘Soul Food’ session with prayer, a song, and a theme for the day.

Some of the more hands-on subjects like Physical Education and Drama found ways to overcome challenges and deliver lessons online, with one parent commenting “It was fun watching PE on the deck!”

Prefects found ways to connect to the students by putting together video messages of support and issuing challenges via video.

Weekly staff meetings were held on Google Meet, with up to 120 in attendance.

Simon Ward says when he saw all the smiling faces on a huge grid at the first Google Meet staff meeting, he instinctively knew the distance learning was going well and all the preparation – started very early on – was worth it.

As the students returned to school under Alert Level 2, there were protocols in place around social distancing. Staggered lunch times were introduced, assemblies live streamed to the Houses, temperature checks done, and reusable fabric face masks had to be worn at times when near to others.

The wider school community also stepped up to meet the challenges of the pandemic. Director of Marketing and Development, Michelle Smith, spent three weeks co-ordinating staff and parent volunteers to make 1900 fabric face masks ready for students and staff to wear.

The school received incredible support and feedback from parents about the way the online learning was delivered, how engaging the lessons were and how grateful they were for keeping their teenagers busy. “Great job St Paul’s teachers. Our son was impressed with how well it went and felt that he had a successful day of learning,” said one.

This from another: “We would like to offer our appreciation for everything you and your team have done over the last couple of months. It has been a very unusual and interesting time. The distance learning has been fantastic.”

Monica Holt

(Source: Network Issue 99)