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Community in the days of coronavirus – how one newly opened school adjusted to the ‘new normal’

Headteacher Dee Conlon recounts how, barely months after opening its doors for the first time, the COVID-19 crisis forced Sir Frederick Gibberd College to rapidly make some difficult changes…

  • Community in the days of coronavirus – how one newly opened school adjusted to the ‘new normal’

Sir Frederick Gibberd College is a brand new academy, having opened as part of BMAT Education in September 2019.

The trust anticipated in early March that major changes might be coming as a result of COVID-19, and instructed our headteachers draw up action plans in case the worst happened.

Before we closed, we were able to distribute learning packs to all the children for them to take home, making sure that they also included our office email address and the numbers for Childline and the NSPCC. We held an assembly to inform the students about what was happening and the arrangements if the school were to close, carried out hand washing demonstrations and shared basic health advice, such as the importance of coughing into their sleeves.

We also made sure that all of our free school meals children went home with vouchers or food, and contacted any parents we knew to be in a difficult financial situation, to see if they needed any help.

10% attendance

Up until then, we had been housed in a temporary site belonging to another school in our trust, Burnt Mill Academy, which consisted of five classrooms and two offices. It became necessary for us to thoroughly deep clean and disinfect the buildings we’d been using, close them until further notice and begin operating our on-site service for children of key workers entirely out of a dedicated room at Burnt Mill.

We currently have around 10 students coming in each day, which shows many of our parents are either key workers or have vulnerable children for whom we need to keep our doors open. We’re currently working out of a computer room that Burnt Mill has allowed us to use, and make shared use of their canteen at lunch times. Aside from that and regular afternoon PE lessons run by Burnt Mill staff, we’ve tried to keep both schools largely separate, due to the number of children we have. It wouldn’t be safe to group them altogether, and likely impossible to observe appropriate social distancing within a single classroom environment.

Bit by bit

We’ve had our online learning platforms in place and operational since opening, so we haven’t had to deploy them at short notice. We’re certainly not expecting parents to teach their children in the same way that we would. We simply want the children to do enough work each day to ensure that everything we’ve taught them remains fresh in their minds, and for the online learning they do to be varied, combining both academic and creative work.

It’s important that they don’t forget what they’ve learnt so far. We’ll contact parents when it’s apparent a child hasn’t been completing any online work at all, but we don’t expect them to complete the work we assign online all in one go – we want them to tackle it bit by bit.

I’m fortunate in that my deputy is also our school’s mental health lead, and that she’s been very active when it comes to supporting the welfare of both the students in our care and the adults we employ. The modest size of our team has enabled us to organise certain things that other schools perhaps can’t, such as the weekly ‘welfare calls’ that members of staff receive from our leaders, and the similar weekly calls that the leaders all receive from me.

These calls cover the work that colleagues have been tasked with at at home, but will also address how they’re feeling and what they’ve been up to. The aim is to boost staff morale, whilst giving them somebody else outside of their household to talk to. If the leaders or I encounter anything that seems to warrant a follow-up, my deputy will contact the staff in question and try to put in place any supportive measures that might help.

Picking up the pieces

The manner in which we eventually return will largely depend on what happens nationally – whether or not it’s a phased return, and what that will involve in practice.

One of the key items at the top of our agenda is PE. We’re aware that many of the children won’t be exercising while in lockdown, and I personally know of some who simply can’t because of their living conditions. We’re developing a curriculum that will allow us to close the learning gaps our students will inevitably have when they come back, and our finance team is working on sending every child a voucher to purchase books. The educational value of reading is priceless, but particularly at this difficult time, reading is a great way of temporarily escaping reality.

It’s also vital that any issues a child may have experienced in relation to their welfare or mental health are properly addressed. I’m lucky to have a phenomenal safeguarding team that contacts our students on a daily basis, checking that they’re still feeling like part of the school and above all, safe.

It’ll be a case of picking up the pieces at the end of all this. The students might not necessarily show any outward signs, but they will have been deeply affected by this experience, one way or another. I know that for some of our children, their daily lives may have fairly unstructured and disorganised. Many will be feeling extremely isolated, and potentially not in regular contact with their friends. We’ll be embarking on a process of bringing back those social interactions, and making all of our students feel part of something special again.

Being such a small school, we’ve formed a very tight knit community. We know each of our children really well, and our staff have become very close – not being able to properly see and interact with each other has been really difficult. Our goal is to re-establish those relationships and restore that close sense of community, while at the same time being mindful of the new cohort that’s due to join us in September, as they’ll need to feel like part of our school’s family too.

Dee Conlon is the headteacher at Sir Frederick Gibberd College

Fact File

Opened: September 2019
Current population: 120 pupils (Y7s only)
Total capacity: 1,700 pupils
Staff: 13 (10 teaching, 3 support)

“We’re still here for them”

Cheree Leverington
Assistant headteacher, designated safeguard lead and SENCo

We want to support all of our young people and their families during this turbulent time, so we’ve set up welfare calls to enable to stay in active contact with the school whilst feeling supported and safe.

We’ve invited pupils to complete online diaries to help keep them occupied and give them a means of reflecting on their changing day-to-day lives. We monitor these, and where we see that a pupil may be feeling low, we’ll call them immediately to offer a listening ear and any further support that might be necessary. We also had our staff record messages for pupils of reassurance and encouragement, so that they know we’re still here for them.

To help the pupils maintain their own sense of wellness themselves, we’ve used our Kindness Calendar to suggest ways in which they can be kind and care for others, and asked them to share examples of their positivity via email.

We’ve endeavoured to support our staff via regular welfare calls and virtual team chats, in which colleagues are encouraged to contact us with details of any support that they might need, while informing them of appropriate resources they can use. All staff have been asked to complete some online development training during their time at home to ensure they’re keeping themselves busy, both to improve their practice and help support their mental wellbeing.

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