It would be no exaggeration to say the last few months rank up there with the toughest of my career.
We’d had a successful year last year and I was feeling positive about driving forward our improvement agenda. But planning for our first day back at school in the midst of a global pandemic was a whole new challenge – not something they covered during my NPQH training…
In previous years we would spend the summer working on the Self-Evaluation Plan, but this year we’ve taken on a new Sisyphean task – the Risk Assessment. At the time of writing this we are on version 16, but excitingly we’re always finding new parts to add. If you fancy, download it from our website (but I can’t promise it is either especially interesting or won’t change immediately).
Other preparations included organising year groups into bubbles, introducing staggered school days, designating particular toilets for different bubbles, and ensuring endless, rigorous cleaning across the school.
There was also the added pressure of Leicestershire’s local lockdown. That made it critical we got those procedures right.
So – how did it all hold up when our pupils arrived back on Wednesday last week?
In short, our students and staff have done us proud. This is partly because we’ve worked together as a school community and shared our guidance, risk assessments and plans regularly. One parent said: “Thank you for all of the updates you have sent. We are all in this together! We are thinking of you all and appreciate your hard work, every last bit of it.”
And we’ve had 96 per cent of students in and all our staff have been in as well.
But there were also some aspects that we really did not expect.
First off, as students lined up outside school in their new uniforms, we realised we’d underestimated just how much distance they would need to queue safely. So we had to hastily adjust staff duty rotas – a quick radio to the admin team, and we were soon resplendent in multiple high vis jackets.
That wasn’t the only unforeseen problem. We’d worked out a solution for lunchtime, staggering the students and rotating them between different spaces to ensure they could all eat in the hall in a socially distanced way. One hundred students would wait outside, to give us the chance to clean the hall before the next 100 students came in.
The colour-coded Excel spreadsheet really looked fantastic. Everyone looked over it, nodding approval.
Then it rained.
We looked at one another in horror. Where would the 100 students waiting outside go? How would our social distancing measures hold up? How could we all have missed such an obvious mistake?
Fortunately we have three sports halls, which gave us the space we needed for that day’s “wet lunch” – and we’ve factored these in as back up for the future! So that was a learning curve.
We’ve found that staff being split up has undoubtedly had an impact on relationships
There’s also the unforeseen impact on staff of having to fit around such a complex timetable. To ensure social distancing, teachers are having breaks and lunchtimes in five teams, in smaller faculty-based staffrooms, rather than altogether.
We’ve found that staff being split up with no chance for an informal tea chit-chat has undoubtedly had an impact on relationships. So we’re going to work hard to sustain those wider networks in other ways, such as our online teams calls.
Finally, the physical demand on staff has also increased. In a somewhat entertaining twist, Fitbits have become must-have accessory among the whole teaching body. It doesn’t matter if it’s not your style – if it gives you the chance to top the leader board with your step count then it’s worth every fashion violation! At just 10.30am on the first morning, the new head of year 7 told me he was already on 18,000 steps. So we need to be careful to take care of staff, too, as they complete these Herculean days.
What else have I learned? Go with the flow. Not everything is going to work, and it’s about staff and students being prepared to improvise.
I tell you what has worked beautifully, though. Our touchless flushing toilets. We’ve had them in school for years, and I’ve never before acknowledged how wonderful they are. Frankly, I can’t recommend them enough.