Learning from a crisis
01 July 2020
Health & Safety
The difficulties of maintaining social distancing and getting access to personal protective equipment.
“Little kids can’t socially distance,” says Year 1 teacher Amy Harland. “They don’t know how to stay away from each other, and they don’t want to. They want to play with their friends.”
Harland teaches at Westport Public School in Port Macquarie, New South Wales. The K-6 school has around 400 students and was one of the first in the state to introduce some flexible learning arrangements with teachers working rostered days at the school.
Harland says the process wasn’t easy either professionally, or personally. “I have to go to school tomorrow with 80 or 90 people, but I’m not allowed to visit my grandma because she’s 86 and high risk. It’s a moral struggle, I guess.
“Social distancing is hard for adults, too, because if you have a learning support officer in your room you have to speak to them from a metre and a half away, so you have to be careful you’re not speaking about a student you’re needing them to help, because everybody can hear you.”
Harland says using technology has its challenges too. “We’re low socioeconomic; a lot of our families don’t necessarily have access to a computer, a tablet or reliable Wi-Fi. So K-2 decided not to go online and sent home physical work packs, but some classes have online platforms and that’s how they communicate.”
Harland feels like she’s never been busier. “There’s a lot of added pressure: the logistics of figuring out which kids and staff will be on site each day,” she says.
Phoning and emailing parents takes up time, too – and Harland has found herself becoming an adult counsellor on occasion.
“Some conversations with parents are taking a long time because they want to have a chat – And fair enough – so you’re not just being a teacher, it’s much more.”
Justin Harris, a teacher at Geelong High School in Victoria, says most teachers and students have been working from home during the COVID-19 shutdown, “which brings with it a host of health and safety issues”.
Harris, also an AEU rep and school health and safety rep, says that there are physical and mental challenges in delivering 100 per cent online teaching from home isolation.
“Many teachers are home with young children and other family members, trying to work on a kitchen table or a bed,” he says.
“We don’t normally have a stand for our department laptops, which we need and most people don’t have a separate keyboard or mouse.”
While the government has provided some funding for equipment, Harris says it’s not enough.
“The worry is that teachers aren’t set up ergonomically, and we’re going to get a number of musculoskeletal issues – in backs, necks and shoulders – from bad workstations. Using new technologies and changed workplaces are big stressors for many people."
He urges teachers to take regular computer breaks, set boundaries around availability, and value the upskilling. “We’ve probably learned skills that otherwise would have taken years of PD at school.”
“Social distancing was probably our number one health and wellbeing concern before the school closed,” says Andy Mison, principal at Hawker College, a Year 11 and 12 school in outer Canberra.
“It was a challenge getting people to change habits that are fundamental to our practice and necessary for teaching and learning in a face-to-face environment. It also runs counter to the way teenagers operate.”
There are 500 students at Hawker College and Mison wanted to ensure teachers remained healthy. “A couple of our senior teachers have chronic health conditions, so I didn’t hesitate to send them home.
“They understood, but it was challenging for them. And I think it was a relief when everybody else was working from home, too.”
Practical hygiene and cleaning measures were easier to implement, says Mison. “They’re operational issues and we were pretty well supplied, so we didn’t really experience too much difficulty with that.
“We had to change some priorities, such as asking cleaners to spend less time vacuuming floors and more time cleaning desks and sterilising areas that people would regularly touch.”
Workloads changed, in as much as people are potentially more accessible now. But teachers no longer had playground duties or commuting to and from work, so that balanced out some of the difficulties and productivity improved.
“A wonderful thing was that once we determined that our entire team would be working in isolation, my business manager got in a truck and delivered school furniture and IT equipment all over Canberra and adjacent parts of NSW to set them up at home.”
“I’m an educator, not a babysitter to keep the economy going,” says Year 4 teacher Penny Karatzovalis.
“Here in Adelaide, it’s ‘business as usual’ and I had 29 children in my class today. We’ve been expected to work at school during this pandemic.”
Karatzovalis says the COVID-19 pandemic has created fear and anger among teachers across metropolitan schools in Adelaide, with many concerned about health and safety.
“Out in the community we’ve been told to keep a metre-and-a-half between each other, and we can’t go to a playground, get our hair cut, or sit in a restaurant – but teachers are to work in a classroom with 29 children? I don’t feel safe.”
When Karatzovalis raised concerns with her school, invoking the obligation of employers to provide a safe workplace, she was given the state government’s answer that she could take leave.
She says there is “adequate evidence that children can die from the virus, or be asymptomatic carriers”.
While fewer students attended school in April, more are now returning, bringing with them heightened risks.
Some distancing measures have been introduced, such as staggered lunchtimes and recesses, but these don’t make sense, says Karatzovalis.
“We’re trying, but we’re not social distancing in accordance with health restrictions,” she says. “Kids don’t distance; they’ve got no concept of it.”
“Teachers have been put in a difficult position. I’m angry and I’m scared.”
“Sometimes hand washing, especially in junior primary, can take 10 to 15 minutes, which takes away from learning time,” says Marika Marlow, a classroom teacher at Mount Barker Primary School in South Australia.
Usually a teacher for children who need additional learning support, Marlow has been assisting teachers who have been busier than usual servicing the needs of students at home and at school during the pandemic.
The school has implemented hygiene procedures for those who are attending.
“We’ve always been vigilant about the children washing their hands before eating and now, using hand sanitiser has become a regular practice,” says Marlow. “Many parents have also assisted by sending a tissue box for their child to use.”
Things can get tricky in junior primary, where there’s a wet area with one tap and four outdoor toilets with a tap in each, used daily by four to five classes.
“When we ran short on sanitizer, wipes and disinfectant many of us had to go out and buy them because back orders took a while to fill,” says Marlow.
Cleaners now work day and night. Before that, children couldn’t use playground or PE equipment because there wasn’t enough time for teachers to disinfect everything between recess and lunch.
Social distancing has been a challenging concept for the children, says Marlow. “The older ones understand, but it’s been difficult.
“When we were down to around 50 per cent attendance last term, it was easier to socially distance in the classroom.
“This term, there’s only a few children away and we’ve been told there’s such low risk there’s no need for social distancing.”
“A lot of people here have the sort of health issues that seem to make the possibility of getting COVID-19 a lot worse,” says Doomadgee State School teacher James Cook.
He says the potential risks of COVID-19 on Doomadgee’s 1200-strong mostly Indigenous community in Far North Queensland were taken seriously.
The Indigenous language and culture teacher says some families moved out bush, and that of the school's 340 preschool to Year 10 students, less than 100 were attending school daily during the crisis.
Teachers who went away for the school holidays self-isolated on their return, and during the student-free final week of last term they prepared take-home packs of materials and made new videos for the school’s Facebook page.
The school has operated as it normally would, but on a smaller scale, condensing some face-to-face units and combining some classes.
Cook says that Facebook is the main communication channel between the school and the community as students without a computer or ADSL can still access it on their parents' phones.
It’s hugely popular; in one recent week, the school’s learning-related posts reached more than 2500 people and had more than 500 interactions.
Cook says creating new video resources, such as a guide to local plants, was one bonus to come out of the crisis. “We wouldn’t normally have this opportunity,” he says. “It was a little unexpected and quite a positive.”
Attendance is always a challenge in a remote community says Andrew Lansdell, who teaches Year 10, 11 and 12 at Shepherdson College on Elcho Island in north-east Arnhem Land.
He says some of the school's 600 students and their parents have been reluctant about attending because of rumours around COVID-19, so teachers needed to work out how to explain the virus and why it was still OK to come to school in the Northern Territory.
“Communicating with parents across remote communities is very tricky. We’ve got a PA system, which would only get to around half the town.
And we are active on Facebook.”
Most classes at the college have two teachers: a Yolngu community teacher from Arnhem Land, and a balanda (white person).
“In that regard, the confusion around quarantining and social distancing measures, and the difficulty of social distancing in the community, definitely did have people worried,” he says.
For staff, meetings are now limited to less than 10 people, often scattered around the school and on Skype.
Student attendance is improving after a few weeks' break. “At the moment, I’ve got a Year 10, 11, 12 engagement class of boys. They come to school a bit, but they are still really developing,” says Lansdell.
“We’re trying to encourage them to get up and get to school, and work out how to rejig their body clocks so they can function a bit more during the day. It’s a challenge we are activity working on, because a lot of what goes on in the community happens at night.”
Technology has created opportunities to help students to learn at home but also many challenges.
“Country kids experience black spots, so it doesn’t matter what dongle you send out, internet access is simply patchy or non-existent,” says Adrian Maywald, principal at Lucindale Area School in regional South Australia.
“While most of our families could find some way to get online, we couldn’t send video links because they’d never be able to download them with current bandwidths. Plain language documents were usually fine though.”
Maywald says the R-12 agriculture school, which runs a farm with aquaculture, sheep, goats, cattle, and cropping, had more than its share of challenges during the COVID-19 crisis.
Of the school’s 178 students, just 34 attended the week prior to shutdown, and the 13 students who used its boarding house had to be sent home.
But it was the planning time when the school was closed that helped Lucindale staff develop a strategy for the weeks ahead.
“We had four days where we managed to come up with some possibilities of how to engage the kids in online or hybrid learning.
“We’re using Zoom, it works across every platform and it doesn’t use a lot of data, so most of our kids can get into it. We’re also using Microsoft Teams, Seesaw, and a range of apps.
“Some of my teachers are still working until 11pm – they teach classes during the day and do their marking, then they’re trying to engage with (their own) kids at night.”
“I’m not sure how long we can sustain that work rate but I really admire the commitment.”
Maywald predicts a renewed focus on wellbeing post-crisis.
“I think we’ll see a healthier society, because instead of people sharing their bugs, everybody will be more supportive of people staying home and getting better’.”
“My students have access to technology, however it’s just a babysitter for them,” says Year 3 to 5 Special Education teacher Melissa Rabar.
“If they saw my face on Zoom, some of them would go into a meltdown because they’re highly autistic and they’d think what’s my teacher doing at home on my iPad. They wouldn’t be able to understand why I’m trying to teach them."
For that reason, technology wasn’t a solution for students who didn’t attend Darwin’s Nemarluk School during the worst of the COVID-19 crisis.
Rabar says that despite schools in the NT staying open when other states were in lockdown, only 12 students out of 175 came to school in week 11 of term 1.
She joined the AEU’s Branch Executive this year and says the union, teachers and staff wanted the schools to close.
“We were encouraging parents by sending home learning packs, which were for the kids who were able. I sent home hands-on activities that my families could do with their students.” Rabar says her workload, and that of her colleagues, increased by at least 50 per cent at the peak of the crisis.
“We’ve never had to provide all learning opportunities remotely before,” says Seir Holley, assistant principal, curriculum at Keilor Heights Primary School. “It’s been the biggest learning curve for everyone.”
The COVID-19 shutdown in Victoria led to a complete overhaul of the school’s approach to teaching and learning, Holley says.
The school did have a small head start: it had an existing software platform that shared material with students’ homes, which was used to deliver remote learning.
Nonetheless, it required a lot of learning for teachers, as well as parents and students who’d never used the software in this way, she says.
“That’s had a massive impact on teachers’ workloads, whether preparing tutorial videos to share with families so they know what to click on, or maintaining all privacy and safety requirements,” says Holley.
The changes affected all areas of schooling, each requiring copious professional learning. It ranged from processes to monitor daily student attendance, new individualised remote learning programs, monitoring students’ progress and supporting their wellbeing, as well as dealing with increased parent contact and feedback.
All done remotely, from home, where teachers may have their own families to support as well.
“The reality is teachers are working longer hours because they are supporting students all day and then having to plan at night and on weekends, says Holley.
“The workload for teachers has been immense. I can’t stress this enough.”
“In a lot of ways, we’re in one of the safest places in the world,” says Ryan Govan, principal of Carnarvon College, almost 900 kilometres north of Perth.
He says the state government’s decision to create ‘soft borders’ reassured the community. While 25 of the school's 420 students stayed home initially, most children will be returning for face-to-face learning this term.
Staff nonetheless prepared some online learning, and physical work packs. “We’re a very low-SES school so a number of our families don’t have laptops and other devices, or reliable internet access," says Govan.
"But staff were pleasantly surprised when we got in touch with families and found out how many were ready and able to access online learning. We shouldn’t underestimate what kids have access to at home.”
Govan says Year 11s and 12s also responded positively to the idea of learning from home. “Those with devices were ready to go, and those without were very proactive working with the school to get a device on loan. They really wanted to make it work.”
Staff are now re-focused on face-to-face teaching with a pared-back schedule.
“A lot of positives have come from that, because without excursions and other activities, students are spending more time in class,” says Govan.
“Technology is a learning experience, and in this current environment there’s a great opportunity to use innovation,” says Year 7 and 8 teacher David Genford.
“Pre-COVID-19, if you tried something, it was almost as if you were expected to be a master of it before you used it.
“One of the best things is that the kids are very aware of this. They know we’re human and some things are going to work, and some aren’t. They’ve been really appreciative of our efforts.”
As the school data coach at Taroona High School in Tasmania, which has 1100 students, Genford has seen teachers sharing workloads, and embracing innovation and trial and error in technology.
In his year levels, four or five teachers work together to produce online content, which is then delivered to the cohort by one teacher, freeing up other staff to respond to students, manage discussion boards and other work.
Overall, it’s been a time of rethinking content and structure.
“We’ve honed in on what is essential for the students,” he says. “We’ve shortened our lesson time to increase the breaks kids have at home. We don’t want them sitting in front of a screen the whole day.”
Genford’s takeaway from this period is the value of innovation, and not being put off by failure, pointing to his own attempt at hosting an online quiz on Facebook Live that was plagued by a deal-breaking 30-second delay.
“It didn’t work, but the feedback from the kids was ‘thanks for trying’. They loved seeing each other’s faces and interacting. Even a failure can be positive.”
“Seeing a beginning teacher suddenly in the position of helping much more experienced colleagues because of their expertise in IT was really interesting,” says Trystan Loades, deputy principal at Keira High School in Wollongong.
“We had a quite a few new teachers who suddenly had a lot of kudos because they were so knowledgeable.
“They were sharing little workshops and how-tos and cheat sheets, and working directly to help people set things up. That was really nice.”
During the worst of the crisis, and beyond, Loades says teaching, support and office staff have been “amazingly flexible, very patient and have worked very, very hard to do the best they possibly can under really challenging circumstances”.
The workload increase during the crisis was “huge”. “Certainly, in my position as a senior executive of the school, it has been,” he says. “Now we are transitioning for change again and bringing people back, and a lot of teachers are parents, too, so it makes for a challenge around where the boundaries of work start and stop.”
Loades says the school of 916 has no Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and just four to five students attended daily during the peak of the crisis. As students began returning, the goal has been to keep them in small groups.
“We put a whole range of protocols in place around social distancing and increased hygiene, using hand sanitiser and cleaning agents, and wiping down laptops," says Loades.
“But what’s been absolutely critical for me, and for the teachers at school, has been the quality of our communication."
“There’s an assumption that kids are techno whizzes, but they’re not,” says preschool teacher Justine Moorman. “They’re just great at apps.”
“A lot of teachers say their students are digital natives for gaming and apps, but lacking the thinking skills for finding their way around Zoom or Webex, or to upload a file and email it,” she says.
These are just some of the revelations coming out of the shift to online learning and home learning programs during the COVID-19 crisis.
Moorman says teachers at Lockridge Primary School in Western Australia have been designing home-learning programs where they can connect to families in a range of ways rather than only through an online package.
“I’m using Facebook because parents can access that easily on their phone. We’re going to them, rather than expecting them to come to us.”
Connecting with the community has been vital, and the school employed a relief teacher to support this work.
“I’ve been able to upload videos, and parents are sending photos of their children, and we’re connecting with each individual family at home at least twice a week.”
“I’m FaceTiming with the children – and the parents are there – and using filters: I’m a pizza, or a dragon, and they’re a bunny. You haven’t lived until you’ve talked to a four-year-old as a piece of pizza on Facebook!”
“I knew if I didn’t participate in the learning that was going on in the school environment at the moment, I’d be disadvantaged when it was over,” says Julie Streeter, a Year 2 teacher at Yarrilee State School.
After nearly 40 years teaching young children in primary school classrooms, with minimal technology use, Streeter made a conscious decision to embrace online learning when the COVID-19 shutdown hit her school in Queensland's Hervey Bay.
Now, two months down the track, Streeter feels more comfortable with the online platforms; though she says she’s still on ‘L plates’.
“I’m able to do the work, but it might take me longer than the younger generation who’ve grown up with this technology,” she says.
It reminds her of her first year teaching. “You know the content well, and you know how to teach, but this is a very different way to teach.”
Streeter recognises that many families are on the same learning trajectory. During the first week of online learning, the Microsoft platform struggled under the increased need for students to access remote learning. This created more stress and anxiety for parents, with many requesting paper-based materials.
Her Year 2 students are accessing their lessons through OneNote and displaying a growing confidence and ease with competence-based learning. “Some of the little children learn so quickly,” she says.
“We’re all learning how to cope with change and showing resilience and determination to conquer what’s in front of us,” she says.
Educators have spent many extra hours creating online content while often continuing to teach those left in classrooms.
“While I’ve been working remotely, the administrative part of the role that consumes daily life in schools was dissolved and the need to support the professional development of teachers and the design and creation of an online learning environment became my priority,” says Cherie Connors deputy principal at Fadden Primary School in the ACT.
“I’ve had more opportunity to focus on leading learning and teaching, which is heaven for any leader.”
Teachers at the school are also thinking deeply and differently about how to design websites and create activities that can be integrated into students’ homes and daily lives.
“From this perspective, I believe the pandemic has provoked us to think differently about what learning is and how it occurs.” Connors calls it a “win for our teachers and learners”.
Video conferencing during lockdown, for example, taught students about technology.
“It was so cute to be a part of a Year 1 and 2 Google Meet and listen to them chatting to each other during the check in; observing them muting and unmuting their mics to ask a question or talk to their peers and teachers; sharing their pets and showing items, including family members, in their homes,” says Connors.
She was also inspired by the selfless attitude of school staff.
“After the AEU’s decisive action to support colleagues in working from home, I had conversations with staff who were conflicted by their deep commitment and passion to learners on site and the need to support their families and their own personal health and safety.
“We took advantage of the two weeks pupil-free to upskill and prepare ourselves for term 2, and support staff health and wellbeing."
“In our first full week back in term 2, a lot of us noticed we were more mentally exhausted at the end of a day than we normally would be if we were just teaching in the classroom,” says Peta-Maree Revell-Cook.
As a teacher in the Next Step program for students with high additional needs at Claremont College in suburban Hobart, Revell-Cook usually has around 26 children in class. By early term 2, attendance had dropped to just three.
The preparation of a curriculum for online and face-to-face learning, combined with support and staff meetings “doubled, if not quadrupled” her workload, at times during the crisis.
That included photocopying online content for students with no internet access and keeping in touch with parents and students regularly.
One benefit Revell-Cook can see emerging from the crisis is proof of the futility of many administration tasks.
“For 10 weeks, some of the admin duties we usually have to complete fell by the wayside,” she says.
“I’m hoping that opens up conversations around workload, because if we didn’t need to do that then, do we really need to pick it up again?”
“I feel very grateful because we’ve got such a supportive team at our school,” says Bianca Eatts, a Year 5 teacher at Aveley North Primary School in Perth.
This is Eatts’ second year teaching and the COVID-19 pandemic has been “very strange”. But she says she's taking comfort in the fact that everyone is in the same situation, and even teachers with 20 years’ experience “have never seen anything like it”.
As student numbers began to drop off, teachers got to work preparing take-home packages.
“Each year level worked as a team to put them together,” says Eatts.
The packs were designed to ensure each of the school’s 500 students would follow the same plan.
Because they were assembled when few students were attending, Eatts says it didn’t add too much to the teachers’ workload.
“It was a big team effort but no extra work from what we’d have normally done, because we’d be planning for the term anyway.
"And it was kind of nice to come in and know that it was already done for this term,” she says.
In fact, Eatts describes the end of term 1 as “sort of a teacher’s dream”.
“All you want is for more time to be able to do things, and we had more time. But there was also the uncertainty of it all, because we didn’t know what we would need to do to prepare.
“It was a really strange feeling at the end of last term, in all aspects of life,” she says. “But now everything has gone straight back to normal.”
“I have had to upskill very quickly in technology, and it’s been a steep learning curve, as it has been for our students,” says Carolyn Mills, a teacher at one of Australia’s largest Prep-Year 12 schools.
Varsity College has more than 3300 students enrolled across two campuses on the Gold Coast. During the worst of the health crisis, the school closed and classes for all students, except those of essential workers, were moved online. The children who attended school were supervised by supply teachers.
PD webinars and workshops and collaboration with colleagues helped teachers make sense of the new systems.
“This situation, as dire as it’s been, has brought the staff together even closer,” says Mills. “We’re constantly bouncing ideas off each other and the students. We ask: ‘What do you think of this, is this working?’”
The workload has shifted, she says, now that the frantic weeks of building and populating the online learning platform are over.
“As teachers we’re always busy, but now I’d say that this situation has stripped things back to basics, asking ‘what is most important’, ‘what do we really need to do’, as opposed to all the add-ons that can happen at school.
“It’s provided opportunity for reflection – we don’t want our kids tied to a laptop seven hours a day. We try and approach things more holistically, we’re not chained to technology.
“A lesson I set was ‘go find a tree and sit under it with a book and just read. Listen to the birds and appreciate what’s going on around you’.”
“A lot of our students are non-verbal or have difficulties with communication, so we use a lot of visual symbols,” says Emma Bruce-Grima, relieving assistant principal at Holroyd, a school for special purposes for students with moderate to severe intellectual disabilities and complex learning needs in Merrylands, New South Wales.
Keeping students engaged is critical, and it became even more so during the peak of the COVID-19 crisis.
Bruce-Grima says cutting, laminating and velcroing a set package that all 188 students received took a full week.
“We printed about 20 sheets for each student using five different sectors to teach from: academic, sensory, movement, leisure choice and life skills."
The package was a whole-school incentive for families. “We’re in a low-SES community, so some families are in a position to borrow devices from us, but many speak English as a second language, which can create barriers in providing information on accessing the technology and some may never have turned on a computer before.”
Bruce-Grima, an AEU representative, says the need to create online resources for some students and physical resources for others meant “double resourcing”. “But we do what we can for our students,” she says.
Holroyd had success using the app Seesaw during the lockdown.
“We wanted something really simple. It was important because there are quite a few barriers affecting our families, and they’re doing the best they can.”
Beyond Blue information to help educators support children and young people’s mental health during the coronavirus outbreak, covering: educator self-care; how to talk about what’s happening in the news; and finding positive ways to direct energy and express emotions. tinyurl.com/ybl5xvyr
Cool Australia has free activities to support students who are learning at home. coolaustralia.org/learning-at-home
Earth School is a series of lessons designed to help students discover and celebrate nature. It has been developed by 70 environmental and education experts and a global team of 50 prominent organisations ed.ted.com/earthschool
This article was originally published in The Australian Educator, Winter 2020