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It's been the toughest week of headteacher Ben Levinson's career, but he's determined to step up for his school community
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For me, last week was the most challenging week of my career.
The constantly shifting goal posts and uncertainty from day-to-day was emotionally and practically draining.
We were having to deal with the immediate situation in school and manage that, as well as scenario planning and preparing for a multitude of uncertain futures, all while supporting stressed children, parents, and staff.
Timescales were unbelievably compressed, leaving little time to allow me to fully reflect before having to deal with endless questions and others concerns.
Having to speak to all staff on Thursday morning and be clear that the school was not shutting and we would remain open over Easter was incredibly tough.
Having to write the communication to parents on Friday that we would be shutting to the vast majority of our children for an unknown amount of time was the one time I was brought to tears.
As of now, we have a clear structure and system in place. Staff are on a rota. The most vulnerable as well as all those who use public transport are working at home for the foreseeable future.
Everyone has a two-week ‘Easter’ break planned in. We are getting 15-20 children at any one time.
The challenge remains uncertainty. Today we are hearing about a test available in days/weeks that will allow you to see if you have the antibodies and can return to work: implications for increases in children, but also hopefully staff.
We are still waiting on a request to open weekends for key workers.
What if children numbers start to go up? What if parents currently coping can’t anymore? What if staff numbers go down due to illness?
If this lasts months, there are serious mental health challenges for families and staff due to isolation.
We are already seeing increases in domestic violence, substance misuse and exploitation.
Then there’s when we return. If this is May or June it will be a challenge for both staff and children to get back into the old routines. If it’s September, well…
All this is before we get into the economic fallout and its impact on families, staff and schools.
It’s fair to say it is a challenging environment right now.
Personally, having the support of my trust colleagues and an amazing team around me has been invaluable.
My CEO has digested the millions of daily updates and provided a précis of these.
We have been there to support each other emotionally and practically. Everyone has stepped up.
I spent a lot of time last week face-to-face with staff, just listening to concerns, giving them time and space to offload, providing as much clarity as possible.
Certainty and structure were both key for my teams so we got those in place as soon as possible.
We’ve upped our counselling support using our Place2Be counsellor for staff.
All staff are in WhatsApp groups to support each other. Everyone is getting weekly phone calls from their line manager.
We have spoken a number of times about being ‘in the moment’ as much as possible and trying not to worry about ‘what if’, as well as focusing on what you can control in all of this.
What my staff need now is stability and consistency.
They need facts to offset the attention-grabbing headlines and nonsense on social media.
They need someone who can support and counsel them, from low-level to more serious mental health issues.
They need recognition that they are stepping up and putting themselves at risk.
They need reminding that this is an opportunity to make a difference and play their part as public servants.
As for the future, if the past two weeks have taught me anything, it’s that crystal-ball-gazing is not an easy vocation.
This is clearly going to spark significant societal change. There are already people navel-gazing on the purpose of education and how it should be delivered.
Exactly what the changes will be and how significant they are are yet to be seen, but what is certain is that there will be huge wellbeing and mental health challenges both now and longer term.
How we’re supporting our vulnerable children
Our vulnerable pupils are either here or we are speaking to them on the phone at least once a week, more often if we are particularly concerned.
Our Place2Be counsellor is also keeping in contact with the children she was counselling.
I’ve just returned from delivering food parcels to two families who are struggling.
We have purchased food vouchers for all our FSM children and these will be delivered to parents’ mobile phones and can be used in the main supermarkets.
We’re also finalising weekly food parcels with our catering supplier – Juniper – which we will deliver to the most vulnerable weekly.
We have a family who are using the playground twice a week when the other children are in the building as they have no access to outdoor space, live in extremely cramped conditions, and are concerned about the severe asthma of one of the children.
How we’re supporting our staff
The most important thing is some consistency and certainty so we have devised a rota.
Over the next four weeks, everyone will work from home one week; work in school one week; be on holiday for two weeks.
Any staff who use public transport or are vulnerable for any other reason – health, childcare, etc – are staying at home until such time as the situation changes.
All staff are in WhatsApp groups to support each other. Everyone will be called weekly so we can check in and make sure they are OK.
We are feeding everyone while they are here and we’ve made sure there are lots of physical health opportunities to support the wellbeing of both staff and children.
Staff in school are doing really well. We’ve got about 15 children in each day; it’s pretty chilled; the sun is shining – it’s actually a nice break from everything else that’s going on.
I’m more concerned about those staff who have to stay at home.
From next week, we’re asking them to put together a rough timetable, including physical and emotional health activities to support them at this time.
If it goes on for a considerable amount of time, we will need to consider further what we can do.
We’ve talked a lot about being in the moment and trying not to spend too much time thinking about what might be in the future.
We’ve also talked a lot about controlling what you can control and trying not to worry too much about the rest.
We’re doing regular updates through email and I’m recording my Friday briefing on video and sharing it through Google Drive.
What about home learning?
Access to technology is 50/50 across our community so we created packs including resources – pencils, rulers, etc – that went home before we shut.
We’ve posted lots on our website as well and our Y6 children are using the J2E virtual learning environment to blog, message, submit work, etc.
Parents are sending photos of completed work to our general email address and then teachers are ‘marking’ this remotely and we’re sending it back to parents.
Our main message is for parents to spend time with their children wherever possible, read with them, get outside if they can, do some physical health inside if not, take time to talk to them about how they are feeling and reassure them that it is OK to be anxious.
We’ve got a hotline as a trust for any parents who want support.
We’re contacting all families across the next three weeks to see if there is anything they need.
Our advice is to focus on their health and wellbeing and that of their children.
If they can find some time to do some nice activities: cooking, counting leaves in the garden, drawing, reading, etc then that’s what they should do.
We will be open over Easter, including Good Friday and Easter Monday. We’re putting plans together as a trust so we are available 24/7 if key worker parents need us.
Ben Levinson is headteacher of Kensington Primary School in London.
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