Supporting staff, student and parent wellbeing during the covid19 school shutdowns
By Mark Steed and Matthew Seddon
Kellett School in Hong Kong was closed because of Covid-19 for 15 weeks from the end of January through to the end of May.
Like most schools, the Kellett Senior Leadership Team’s initial priority was on the logistics of moving to providing the academic curriculum for home learning. However, we quickly realised that these were relatively straight-forward in comparison to the challenge of continuing to provide pastoral support for the emotional well-being of students, staff and parents. As part of the Positive Education movement, wellbeing is high on our agenda at the best of times, the school closures provided a challenge as to how we could move our Positively Kellett programme online.
How we supported Students’ Wellbeing
When we moved to online learning we built our regular Form Tutor meeting into the programme. Form Tutors checked in with their Tutor Groups every day via zoom. This proved helpful for pre-empting problems and enabled swift response as a school.
We felt that it was important to get feedback from the students. So, from Week 3 we sent out regular questionnaires for students where they can comment on how they are getting on with their home-learning and self-report on their own well-being (Scale 1-10). The Heads of House were in regular contact with those reporting negative levels of well-being (those reporting 4 or less). The Wellbeing Team also offered one-to-one video-conference “check ins” (counselling sessions) to those students reporting negatively. All students have the opportunity to request a “check in” and parents can refer their children if they feel that it is needed. In addition, the Heads of House have been proactively calling every family in our community which has provided opportunity for parents to give some feedback, or indeed to offload themselves.
We hold regular wellbeing events at Kellett during term time so it was natural that these should continue throughout the closure. Our regular ‘Feel Good Fridays’ moved online. Community events have included:
Feeling Connected – everyone wore red (staff in school – students at home/online);
A lunchtime ‘Open Mic’ competition with participants around the world contributing to the live streamed event;
A Book Week event – online poetry recitals, book reviews, a ‘Micro-fiction’ story competition (1000 words or fewer).
How we supported Staff Wellbeing
We took the decision early on that our teachers and admin staff should be in school for all or part of the week either delivering ‘live learning’ or preparing lessons (making videos for the students etc.). This proved an important decision because it allowed us to have regular contact with the staff, to foster a team spirit and also to run a number of well-being activities (such as yoga, mindfulness sessions and sports activities) in breaks, lunchtimes and after school.
From Week 6 social distancing rules in Hong Kong meant that we had to begin working from home. Whilst it is undoubtedly more difficult to support staff when working remotely, we continued to hold online events, such as a weekly Pub Quiz, to put the school teaching community together; and monitored staff wellbeing with regular questionnaires.
How we supported Parents’ Wellbeing
Schools are a focus for their community and it is understandable that many parents turned to the school when facing the undoubted pressures of that Covid-19, school closures and lockdowns brought. Many were trying to balance working from home with supporting home learning; many were worried about their jobs; and many were worried out their children’s education, especially for those with children in crucial examination years.
In these circumstances we realised that it was important that the school not only communicated well and often, but also provided a listening ear. Parents commented that they valued that that someone from the school took time to contact them. Many simply want the opportunity just to talk.
Key Lessons Learned
Over the course of the closure there were three key lessons learned about the wellbeing issues that we were facing as a school:
The normal issues are still there: Schools play a significant role in supporting young people in normal times – these issues don’t just disappear because the school is closed. There are still be students and staff who are grieving because of a bereavement; or who are anxious because of the potential impact of their parent being diagnosed with cancer.
Beware the long-standing issues that take on a new complexion: Take, for example, the student who is on the verge of being a school refuser with anxiety issues and who is now in a situation that allows him to be absent from school for a sustained period of time. When school resumes, this student will require careful re-integration and monitoring.
The new Coronavirus-related issues: The Covid-19 throws up a whole range of anxieties and practical issues with which the school counselling team are likely to have to deal.
Medical: that someone close will catch the virus; staff who are pregnant or who have newly-born children feel particularly vulnerable as do those with elderly relatives;
Financial: that a loved one will lose their livelihood because of the lack of business in the short-term, or the wider economic downturn.
Cancelled Family Events: that a wedding will not take place, and so on.
Isolation: the pressures for staff or students working from home alone for a prolonged period of time.
Cabin Fever: the pressure of some families all being at home trying to work around each other or a prolonged period of time.
In the international community these issues are compounded by the distance of being away from loved ones and the difficulties of travel and quarantine that might delay a return.
One of the key lessons was that it was important to listen to the community. Extended school closures were unchartered territory for all concerned and our questionnaire responses told us that over a third of our secondary students felt overloaded with work. In response we decided to change the structure of the school day, shortening lessons from 50 minutes to 40 so that we could fit all of the ‘live teaching’ via Zoom into the mornings. This meant that afternoons were more flexible allowing students and staff to get some time away from their screens and enabling families to take exercise together.
It’s a marathon not a sprint
From the outset we realised that, if we were to look after the wellbeing of our community we needed to approach the school closures as a marathon and not as sprint. As with marathon running, it was important not to go off too fast, to settle into a sustainable pace, to take every opportunity to refresh yourself, and to recognise that some people in the community are going to need some support when they hit ‘The Wall’.
Above all, promoting wellbeing is about sticking together as a community. In the words of the African proverb: ‘If you want to go quickly, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.’
Links to Wellbeing Resources
How to support pupil, staff and parental wellbeing when your school is closed – Tes Webinar: Mark Steed outlining what we have done here at Kellett School
Teaching Remotely, Learning Together - Interview with Matt Seddon - Institute of Positive Education Webinar (17/01/2020)
Being Me: Mindfulness Tasks for kids - Kellett Mindfulness Videos - Sandra Bushnell's YouTube Site @sandrabushnell
Mark S. Steed is the Principal and CEO of Kellett School, the British School in Hong Kong; and previously ran schools in Devon, Hertfordshire and Dubai. He tweets @independenthead.
Matt Seddon is the Deputy Head of Kellett Senior School (House and Pastoral). He tweets @Kellett_MS.