Retaining a sense of togetherness during physical separation

Schools still have a duty of care to retain academic and pastoral connections with their pupils, says Lara Péchard, head of St Margaret’s School

Life is difficult for many right now and children of all ages are also suffering from feelings of loss and confusion surrounding the impact of Covid-19.

With school closures, the restrictions of lockdown and the likelihood that they won’t physically see their extended family, friends or teachers for a number of months is daunting to say the least.

Yet right now, schools still have a duty of care to retain that connection with their pupils not just from an academic perspective but from a pastoral one too.

Encouraging pupils to consider how they can turn the technology they use habitually into a tool to overcome some of the impact of social distancing is worth exploring.

Including every class member in their WhatsApp groups might not have been something children would have previously considered, but things are changing. Inclusion hasn’t always been easy to achieve in the social media world of teenagers, but something about the crisis we are finding ourselves in is bringing out the good too.

Pupils and staff are, in small yet meaningful ways, also making efforts to stay in touch with one another.

St Margaret's School
St Margaret’s School in Hertfordshire

House parties?

Many pupils are turning to a popular app called Houseparty, which, in the normal run of school life, would have no doubt been a nightmare, but anything we can do to encourage that social interaction is really important. The app by its nature is, however, very inclusive.

One of our parents talked about the first Saturday after lockdown witnessing a whole-day Houseparty session for his daughter’s tutor group, where the class had the ability to talk about what was happening.

The parent was overjoyed, as his daughter had only started at the school two weeks before. Such social inclusion any parent would be happy with, especially so shortly after their arrival midway through the year.

We have a continued duty to provide access to counsellors and one-to-one discussion with teachers, albeit remotely

Independent schools are known for their ability to deliver the academic, but where the real value-add comes in, some would say, is in the co-curricular and the pastoral provision. With children learning at home for the foreseeable future, a goal has to be to continue to develop quality provision across these areas as well as academically via remote learning.

Using technology such as Google Meet helps to ensure lots of face-to-face contact between pupils and staff, but also structure. Parents have reportedly particularly enjoyed the fact that there has not been lots of spare time for their children to require motivating or where they might have too much time to ponder on the enormity of a global pandemic and its consequences.

Routine plays a huge part in this stability and focus – we have to keep to registration and pastoral times so that pupils still see their tutor every day and fellow tutees, even if in a less formal way.

Staying grounded

Ensuring regular assembly slots at least twice a week will also help to keep up the pastoral input between the school and its pupils. Sticking with planned themes where appropriate is worthwhile and where possible schools should also try to keep their calendar the same.

Virtual choirs, music practice and concerts all help pupils to feel connected and not as if everything has been taken away from them.

For those pupils struggling during this time – and there will be many – it is particularly important to stay grounded. For the year 11s and 13s, where the landscape of their world has suddenly fallen beneath their feet and where there remains questions about what happens next, we have a continued duty to provide access to counsellors and one-to-one discussion with teachers, albeit remotely.

Many independent schools across the country will have been creative in their pastoral offering, having pastoral check-ins even during the holidays, which will have allowed schools to keep an eye on everyone in the school community; tutors may have also looked at running tutorials once a week over this time and pupils may have also been encouraged to access email to ask for a check in if they need help before then. All of these elements help to support that sense of togetherness.

Call on your parent network

Keeping parents engaged with daily correspondence from the school, with advice about how much you can expect from your child at this time and how to talk to them about Covid-19 etc, will also keep that all-important dialogue going. Where schools struggle to decide on a matter, remember, this is all new.

Nobody has all of the answers, so calling on your parent network for feedback is vital – sending questionnaires to ask for their opinions gives some subject matter to work with too. All of this, along with open, honest and transparent communication, will go a long way to keeping children happy with a sense of belonging.

St Margaret’s has set up ‘The Cheery Chat’ WhatsApp group to help its common room feel more connected

For staff, there are many ways schools can provide support to boost connectivity. Many teachers with families are still trying to honour the school timetable with the exposing webcam in their home and that is not easy.

As an example, St Margaret’s has set up ‘The Cheery Chat’ WhatsApp group to help its common room feel more connected – this is for teachers only and the head is not a member. It is designed to be a place where teachers can chat in confidence and have an outlet to breathe.

Setting up twice-weekly briefings with the headteacher will also provide an opportunity for teachers to stay connected and to air any concerns or feedback.

The big question

The big question is, how do we come together once this is all over? Well, there is still much to firm up, not least the issue of how to celebrate the two-year courses for the GCSE and A-level cohorts.

Whenever school resumes to some kind of normal we, as a school, will be making a fuss of those students who had their world turned upside down and it is a goal to claim some time out of the academic year 19/20, if only to bring us back together again, to finish the circle properly.

A sense of belonging is something we crave as human beings and school is no different. Schools are the grounding for communities helped by their routines and there needs to be some more time together before 20/21 begins.

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