Education — the act of learning skills and knowledge passing from generation to generation — and surely one of the most important tools we equip our children and young people with for life.
That is why those working in our schools take their place next to our NHS staff and other critical workers as central to the ongoing efforts in battling the coronavirus.
Preventing the spread of this deadly disease is paramount, and saw the closure of all nurseries, schools, colleges and universities during March, affecting more than 3,000 youngsters in Orkney.
Life changed as we know it, and all involved had to find a new way of living and working.
The swiftness in which new measures came into being in Orkney was second to none — the challenges presented to us had never been dealt with before.
Education leaders in the county were tasked with ensuring a new set up was in place by Monday, March 23. Childcare provision had to be made for the children of keyworkers — allowing parents and carers to play their part in the national response to COVID-19; they had to ensure S4 – S6 pupils could continue to complete course work for national qualifications, and look after our most vulnerable children.
But the message was clear from the outset — and remains so to this day — the facilities — the two Hubs at Papdale Primary in the East and Stromness Primary in the West — are for those who have no other option open to them, and only they qualify for the critical childcare provision. That is vital — we must keep the numbers as small as possible to ensure as little risk of transmission of COVID-19 as possible.
Staff were further tasked with making arrangements for continuing provision for those entitled to free school meals.
The university and college partnership, including here in Orkney, is also delivering teaching and learning online, and students are staying in touch with local course leaders to keep up to date with teaching and assessment arrangements. Community Learning and Development is running online courses, supporting community associations, the voice of young people, and the Humanitarian Aid Centre. In addition, Community Learning and Development is engaging with the Scottish Government and Skills Development Scotland, in establishing what support may be required to ensure positive destinations for young people. It has been a steep learning curve for us all, but staff have carried on with selfless dedication and for that I thank them. We should all thank them.
Learning is important — but health and wellbeing are more important. This is always the case when working with children and young people, but it has become an absolute mantra for me since March.
I have been part of the team setting up the Hub to provide childcare for key workers in the West Mainland, and we have worked hard to provide a welcoming environment for children despite the over-riding need for spaces to be easy to clean and socially distanced.
Buildings have been completely reconfigured to allow small groups of staff and children to be together without coming into contact with other groups.
Our fantastic staff team is very much led by children’s needs, providing activities which are engaging and fun alongside supporting them to do their schoolwork. Staff wellbeing is important too; Hub staff are volunteers, and working in the Hub is intense, but staff rotas are designed to balance Hub time with time to continue their “day jobs.”
For the classroom staff in the Hub, that day job is supporting the majority of their pupils who are working at home. Getting home learning up and running for all of Orkney’s children has been no mean feat.
Pupils and staff have had to adjust overnight to completely new ways of working. The difficulties of teaching a practical subject like woodwork online are obvious, but without the teacher on hand to support, encourage and answer questions, all subjects can be challenging.
We have had to learn from our mistakes, and we have been grateful to pupils and parents who have given us feedback on what works for them — and what doesn’t. For example, at Stromness Academy, in the beginning we were setting too much work in some cases, not realising how much longer it takes to do tasks at home compared to the classroom.
Headteachers and education managers worked together to devise an agreed approach to learning at home for pupils across Orkney, and we now have timetables in place which give pupils two-three hours of work a day in a set structure, appropriate to their age and school courses. This enables children and young people to have some all-important routine in their day, without being overwhelmed by work. It also gives time for other activities — getting outdoors for exercise, relaxing and staying in (virtual) contact with friends and family. All of these are crucial to health and wellbeing.
We have also set up systems to care for our pupils. These differ from school to school; at Stromness Academy it is our Guidance Teachers who are making regular contact with families. These contacts have helped us resolve issues, such as lending out laptops and setting up systems to get paper-based work to pupils who have no internet connection. They have also been able to arrange extra support for those who need it, whether that is a video session with a support for learning teacher to help with work or an online session with our school counsellor.
A big source of worry for many senior pupils is what is happening to their SQA exams. We have again worked across Orkney on this, and letters have gone out to pupils and parents explaining the process which is being used, to ensure that the teacher estimates which will replace exams are produced and checked in a manner which is fair to all young people across the country. The over-riding message we would want to give to all our pupils and parents is that we are here to support you, whether you are attending a Hub or working at home. We want you to learn — but most of all, we want you to be healthy and well. If anything to do with school is getting in the way of that, please get in touch and we will do our best to help.
On April 6th, Papdale School and Nursery became the Hub for key worker children to attend. We have three nursery teams, one managed by myself, one by Shaun Tulloch and one by Fiona Greaves. Each team consists of a manager, lead and seven practitioners. We work on a rota basis.
My role is to organise the weekly rota for practitioners to work in the setting, I am in every day from 8am, however, practitioners may work a full day or a half day and generally no more than two and a half days in the setting. I also still manage my own nursery team and all correspondence with home learning for all our children.
Our main priority is their emotional wellbeing, ensuring they feel safe and secure. The nursery is set up with a variety of activities for the children to access and we have access to our nursery garden along with the boundaries of the school. At present we have six attending regularly and we take each day as it comes, following the interests and needs of the children attending. It is a very relaxed atmosphere and our priority is to ensure all the children are happy and are having fun! They are all doing amazingly well and are an absolute tonic as young children take things at face value so have adapted extremely well.
I am more than happy to care for keyworkers’ children as they are providing a vital role to keep us safe, healthy and provide the community with essential and vital services. We do this as safely as we can by following infection control guidelines, but it is tricky with very young children.
We are very much a team; we are all in the same boat providing the necessary care to ensure we get through this unprecedented time.
I'm responsible for maintenance, security and general upkeep of the school and the grounds, and used to cover play time supervision of large groups of children, which are now very small groups of between two and eight children.
I work alternate weeks, alongside another janitor, and we are also responsible for First Aid, paying particular attention to hygiene and stock levels.
I was involved in setting up the Hub classrooms and dining area, ensuring hygiene equipment was in the specified areas for pupils and staff to use and also setting out IT equipment for children to use in their own area.
There are challenges, but it’s rewarding being part of a team providing a useful service in order that key workers can carry out their roles to the wider community whilst knowing their children are in a safe environment.
Prior to the pandemic, my eight-year-old son Leighton and I lived with my parents (aged 80 and 90). As COVID-19 arrived in Scotland, and lockdown became increasingly likely, I worried about how my parents could be kept safe and achieve social distancing, and how I could continue to work and care for my son.
I decided the safest option was to move into temporary accommodation, and childcare would not be an issue, as I had been advised by the OIC education department that Leighton’s school, Papdale Primary, would be open from March 23.
It was upsetting dropping Leighton at school that first day — it felt like I was placing him at risk. But my fears were allayed on picking him up — he was happy, had enjoyed his day and I was reassured by the fact there were very few bairns in the school. He was as safe as possible given the circumstances.
The support provided to us by the Hub has been world class. He has been taught by a small group of teachers. They have been professional, caring and kind and managing a very challenging situation well. Leighton has significant additional support needs and the small classroom size has really suited him and he is regulated and calm at home. I want to thank both Leighton’s usual class teachers who are setting online learning, and the teachers and support staff working in the Hub. Everyone has been fabulous.
Finally, may I give a big shout out of thanks to Orkney for only sending their children when absolutely necessary. This has helped to make the Hub feel safe.
I'm now working alongside my colleagues both providing and supporting learning, through an online format and working within the East Mainland Hub, caring for a group of keyworker children.
Our day is split into online learning time, where the children access the work that their teachers have provided. We also try to build in some active time and art activities.
I know that parents are hugely appreciative of the work we have been doing both providing learning online, but also the work that staff have done to get the Hub up and running.
It’s lovely to get e-mails from parents and children showing us the things that the children have been learning whilst at home. I enjoy working in the Hub as it’s nice to do some face-to-face teaching and have some interaction with the children attending.
Health and safety procedures within the Hub have been outlined from the first day, with social distancing and hand washing very important. The children are constantly being reminded and understand why we have to adhere to these rules.
I don’t worry, it’s not something at the forefront of my mind when I’m in the Hub. I feel I’m providing the care, help and support needed for the keyworkers and those are my main thoughts.
Prior to the virus, a team of 11 staff in the kitchen would usually serve around 320 meals per day at Papdale, and cater for the Strynd Nursery and Orphir Primary. Now there are only between ten and 20 children at the school on any day along with the staff, and we also provide meals for the Keelylang Centre. I work alongside one of two kitchen assistants over the course of a week, keeping contact to an absolute minimum. We provide a healthy, balanced meal or snack if required — that has not changed.
I do feel like a keyworker, but in the background, and I have great pride and satisfaction in my job.
While there is a lingering fear of the virus in the back of my mind, as we are working with the children of frontline workers, I don’t feel unsafe, as we are complying with infection control and doing what we can to keep safe.
Because we work with food, our standard of hygiene has always been high — so much of the groundwork was already in place for us as part of the normal, daily routine. There are additions now though, such as we now sanitise our tables and chairs before the children come into the dining hall, and wash and sanitise it all down again after they leave.
We have markings on the hall floor to show the two-metre distancing and a line to show two metres from the serving hatches. We try to keep the whole process as normal as possible, as the children need a resemblance of some normality in these strange difficult times.
I trust in my staff abilities and they have a good understanding of what is required with everything as it is.
We feel that what has been achieved in such a short space of time is amazing.
The ability to access appropriate resources and assignments online (or through paper packs where families don’t have access to internet) is great, it gives the kids some form of routine to their days while allowing them to keep in touch with their class mates and teachers and keep the skills they’ve already learned at school fresh in their minds.
The personal and positive feedback on work, from teachers, is lovely and the children really benefit from it. Teachers have also, importantly, reminded parents that they can adapt the learning timetable to fit in with their own circumstances at home.
I think it’s important to remember that the teaching staff are having to adjust to living in these times too, they may have vulnerable family members that they worry about or children they have to look after and home school themselves. Managing to do this on top of adapting to a completely new system of teaching and supporting pupils is fantastic and we’re very lucky to have such a skilled and dedicated team of staff supporting our children.