Two primary students atTenby Schools Johor sit in their online classes. (photo provided by parent, with permission)
Much has already been said about the COVID-19 pandemic, from how schools, governments and the world were unprepared for the scale, length and level of disruption that would, and still is occurring. There are two extremes of thought on how COVID has interrupted schooling; one view is that the pandemic has irrevocably changed systems, upset a broken model of exams and traditional teaching. This view is that the pandemic represents an opportunity to reassess, reevaluate and reimage education in the 21st Century. The opposite view is that the students, teachers, and schools have done well enough just to survive the pandemic. Schools should not be asking for more, but paring down everything unnecessary so that we just ‘survive’ until the’ ‘normal’ returns.
The First Weeks
Our initial responses were similar to other schools at Sekolah Sri Tenby Johor; we struggled a little to find the best way to present lessons online and struggled with time, needs and wants. Parents and teachers complained about internet connections, hardware and timetables as we tried to find the best balance of synchronous and asynchronous learning. We started with one platform, Classroom in Engage. Still, we quickly realized the Microsoft TEAMs suited our needs better, co-curricular activities (CCAs) were suspended, and our leadership team intentionally cut all extraneous meetings and PD to recognize our teacher’s struggles. We sent out laptops and notebooks to students who needed extra devices; we bought additional internet data for teachers that needed and purchased new mobile phones for office staff to do their jobs at home.
The benefit of belonging to a large, financially stable group of schools (International Schools Partnership) meant that we had a strong network of colleagues, plenty of support for tech, finance and other functional roles that international schools need to perform. With this support, we were able to overcome any matters that arose very quickly. Experimenting with various applications, all practical lessons subjects, such as Arts, Science, Design and Technology, maintained a continuous leading journey.
Celebrations and events have always been a time for all school communities to get together. At the end of 2020, as Malaysia moved in and out of lockdowns, we realized that even if the school were going to be back on campus, a large graduation ceremony would not be possible. Thus, like many other schools, we planned and delivered a memorable online ceremony for our graduates. Parents who were stuck working in other states and countries witnessed their children’s graduation ceremony. Bringing them all together virtually was a great success for us.
Communicate, communicate, communicate
Strong communication between schools and parents was and still is essential in ensuring we are on the same page in supporting our students in their academics, social and emotional wellbeing. Therefore, we utilized emails, WhatsApp groups, Facebook Live, and TEAMs meetings regularly with our parents and teachers. In addition, our PTA (Parents Teachers Association) were very supportive in organizing virtual workshops and events for the school, such as an online yoga class or parents’ workshop on “good posture during work from home”.
Most importantly, we asked, and we listened. We regularly sent out learning surveys to all members of the community (students, parents and teachers), asking questions such as “How does your learning now compare to a year ago, before the Corona Virus made us change so many things?”, “How are you feeling at the moment? Is there anything we can do to help you feel better about things?” and “How well do you feel your students are learning at the moment? Are they still getting better?”. We used the answers to those surveys to create actions plans to improve.
We know that academic success is crucial for our children. However, ISP schools also take mental health and wellbeing as equally important or even more so. We do mental wellness check-ins regularly in classes and meetings—a simple heart colour emoji to indicate current wellness. Using MS TEAMs, we adapted this to a 1-5 numerical system, 1 meaning poorly and 5 demonstrating the most well. Then, of course, we followed up on those colleagues or students who had indicated they were not feeling so well that day. That simple act alone helped most moral and mental wellbeing. Tenby schools also brought in a modified timetable that included, and still does, a Wednesday Afternoon Digital Detox. No one uses any laptops, iPads or phones after midday on Wednesday. We encouraged students and teachers to spend their golden times with family members, reading, writing, drawing, building jigsaws or Lego, gardening or baking.
For International Teachers Day, we wanted to do something special. So our fantastic HR staff put together care packages that we then hand delivered, including the Principal, to all our teachers and staff to show how much we appreciate their hard work and high commitment during those challenging times.
The ‘new normal’
We held online competitions in school and globally, such as an ISP Chess tournament, Film Festival and Malaysian Science Technology competition. In addition, we began offering online co-curricular activities, financial literacy, arts and many more. Our student council designed a Study Skills 101 workshop for all students, held a Bahasa Malaysian events week and online World Music Day celebrations. Our admissions department have been holding VODs (Virtual Open Days) and online trial classes.
Despite being in the 3rd wave of lockdowns, we are approaching a ‘new normal’, and although we prefer the social togetherness of physical schooling, there is almost nothing we cannot do in an online format!
Suzanne Laong is Head of School at Sekolah Sri Tenby Johor in Malaysia.
Liam Hammer is Campus Principal at Tenby Schools Johor in Malaysia.