Senior Deputy Head, Andy Skinnard looks back on what it's been like to help keep a school running during such an unusual 18 months.
I remember sitting at home and at school for the news bulletins watching as word of the Coronavirus first broke and it was a time of quite strong energy and excitement. We were watching an extraordinary news story breaking and we had something extremely important to communicate with parents about which felt significant to all of us – teachers, parents, pupils and the wider community.
I think we’ll all long remember the Brighton Scout Master who returned from a ski trip to mark the first UK case. We kicked into communication mode and began regular briefings with parents.
As cases rose and concerns escalated, it became an increasingly tough time for everyone. Some parents naturally were concerned early on and wanted to keep their children at home, while others felt their children were better off being in school, looking at government guidance. News of strong steps began to appear, and London was the centre of attention, and then the announcement came from the government that schools in the whole country would close, and the decision was made for us.
We made the call to let pupils home two days before the lockdown so we could have a staff training day on the final day, to get ready for remote learning.
That day with staff, I recall, was tense. I remember the nurses were worried about us meeting as a staff body closer than 2 meters apart, though no official social distancing measures were in place yet. There was a real sense of ‘how will this work?’. Teachers needed help to use the technology and platforms to teach from home and many had kids at home they needed to support with learning needs themselves. It was a real ‘switch the lights off as you leave’ moment when I left that day, and the school buildings were not properly populated again until the first day of the next academic year in September.
And then it began, the following week - Virtually Alleyn’s - with everyone at home apart from the amazing effort from some colleagues to support our significant number of key worker children, and some key offices.
The first few days were very tense. The Hub platform was – understandably – inundated and there were times when access was difficult given the numbers using it simultaneously. The big questions became, ‘Can we offer live provision?’ ‘Would it be possible from a safeguarding perspective and from a technical possibility?’ Like all of the changes and adaptations Covid brought, we had very quickly to work up a protocol. We decided to go for Teams chat and live touch points but not on camera. By the next term, we had got to a system with a new timetable together so one in three lessons was live on Teams with live audio and the two others were managed using resources teachers were putting up for pupils to access. Ms Chandler, with the Heads of Section, Mrs McAuliffe, Mrs Heindl and Mr Green put together a remote provision handbook that was a vast and detailed document, written through the Easter holidays – something I only saw on getting out of hospital.
The Easter holidays demanded no break for staff preparing for the next term and the management of this remote school by SMT. I was in hospital with Covid at this point and had absolutely no idea how everyone stepped up in that Easter ‘break’. I saw it after a six-week recuperation (no emails for six weeks – a modern lesson I haven’t forgotten) and was amazed on re-emerging how much everyone had done.
And despite all the challenges for Virtually Alleyn’s, we did not fall behind on syllabus coverage, while maintaining as much pastoral contact – and co-curricular provision – as was possible with the technology. I was immensely impressed with pupils and staff for this. Our staff were incredible, addressing as best they could the gaps that lockdown created. The PE Department came up with genius ways to support and motivate pupils to exercise differently from home. Our Music Department worked quickly to enable individual music lessons from home, and the opportunity to do some remote ensemble work. Our academic and creative departments stepped up and gave pupils so many ways to continue to express themselves, including collaborative music projects, remote staged readings for pupils, a philosophy of acting masterclass (!), online Art clubs and live cookery courses. It was incredible to see such an effort from staff and such a positive response from pupils and parents.
It was during Easter that we invested in new machines that would enable live and visual teaching. We realised we could provide live teaching contact time with different technology in the hands of teachers, and with all pupils able to access it at home, should Virtually Alleyn’s need to be in existence longer than we had anticipated. Mr Born and Mrs Morgan helped facilitate this major IT project with the IT staff already busy in their support of the remote provision. It was a big decision and was managed with great effect. These machines would allow pupils to experience a timetabled day of live lessons, if we remained remote.
By the end of the summer term, we welcomed some pupils back onto the campus but under strict guidelines. More staff were coming back on-site and we were able to test safe movement around the campus. Over the summer holidays, Ms Chandler led with Mr Severino, Mrs Mines, the Nurses, the Events Team, Mr Born, Mrs Morgan and the Bursary team with an incredible effort. We managed to provide for a bubbled return to the site in the new school year that was covid-ready and ready for the whole school to be in attendance.
We decided on face-coverings, even though their use was at the discretion of Headteachers. The single biggest health lever we could press was ventilation. Plastic screens could provide safety to an extent, but we knew the science was saying ‘it's not spit, its what's in the air’, that is the bigger cause of transmission. We got permission from the London Fire Brigade to have doors open. And we put in place a monumental testing operation. And we became experts in reading Government guidance documents. Never did I think early on in my teaching career that I would become a risk assessment expert…
And come September we managed to go back to a normal teaching timetable, thanks to Mrs McAuliffe, Mrs Heindl, Mr Ryder and their team. It felt good to have that sense of normality back, but the co-curriculum was initially hit hard. This was a major covid loss, especially for younger pupils who missed out on the interaction that co-curricular activities like CCF gives them with older pupils. However, Mr Green led with the leaders of the major co-curriculum activities, and we were soon offering a great choice of activities within the school day, and were able to offer sporting activity on Saturdays, thanks to Mr English and his team.
We sensed a lot of anxiety on the return, and we are all aware that months of lockdown was bound to have had an impact on well-being. It is this strain on mental health which has been the biggest impact that I’ve seen.
And of course, there was great anxiety about public GCSE and A level exams. A last-minute U turn from the Government about grades in August affected everyone.
We triumphantly opened in September, but a new wave of the virus hit us hard. We had to begin a very exhausting process of track and trace, given a rise of positive covid tests, and Ms Chandler and Mrs McAuliffe, with Mrs Reeves and Mr Watkins, had to contact a lot of families informing them of the need for their child or children to have to self-isolate. Some pupils were hit two or even three times by this requirement. I remember going into the Great Hall where pupils sat waiting to go home and they were so deflated. I’m pleased we never had to send a whole year group home but seeing those pupils' faces was heart wrenching.
There is no doubt that covid will constitute the most challenging experience in my career and I imagine many of my colleagues feel the same. There have been, and I’m sure will continue to be, times of great uncertainty – parents tense about their jobs, the devastation of people we know being unwell and dying, and the impact we have all felt on our mental health. I’m sure we will see the impact of this for a long time to come.
But in spite of the difficulties, I have never before seen such unity between parents, staff and the kids. It has been a fantastic sense of joint mission. It has brought about the most positive communications between bodies I have ever seen in a school with everyone doing their utmost. Everyone I work with has been on the front line and have been so brilliant with or pupils. And the immense effort behind the scenes from every part of the School to keep us running as smoothly as it has, has been inspirational. We’ve all shared an extraordinary experience, and we have all been in it together.
Andy Skinnard, Alleyn’s Senior Deputy Head.