I’m a head teacher of one of the largest primary schools in Kent, England. We had two days' notice from our government to shut everything down. As you could imagine, it was quite traumatic for me, the staff, and the senior leadership team to shut a school, simply because it’s never been done before. Having to relay information to all of the families we work with was so difficult… it’s ingrained in the very fabric of our society that children have a right to go to school. To make things worse, there wasn’t even an end-date to all of this chaos.
So we had to shut our school in two days. Two days. We only had two days to work with around a thousand people. But the most shocking element of it all was the thought of having to close our doors. Our school is in a very vulnerable area, so there was lots of apprehension towards what would happen to our vulnerable families and children. In our school, we have a mixture of people. There are middle-class and affluent kids who get to travel and spend their holidays in Dubai, but on the other end of the spectrum, we have children who are living with 7 or 8 other people in one bedroom, with no food, no clothes, and may also experience high levels of abuse. In England, we have what’s called Serious Case Reviews, when children are seriously harmed or die as a result of neglect or abuse. A head teacher’s biggest fear is that someone dies on your watch. And it’s very much a reality in the school that I work in.
As a head teacher during the pandemic, I was in charge of all of the logistics and organization. From 6am in the morning till 10pm in the evening, our government was releasing around 15 pieces of guidance a day, and I had to read all of that information to make sure my risk assessment was up to date. I also handled all 136 staff members— checking up on their well-being, making sure if they were clinically vulnerable, accommodating their emotional needs… As well as organizing our 1,000 pupils, making sure that some of them had access to food and social service input…
All of the safe-guarding alerts come through to me, so I was privy to some of the trauma our families were experiencing. If there were any parents that died, or any children who had tested positive for the coronavirus, all of that information came to me. I had to speak to public health constantly, and I had a huge amount of responsibility and accountability on my shoulders.
In actuality, we never fully closed our doors throughout the pandemic. For the first 15-18 weeks into the pandemic, our school remained partially open because the government said we had to allow any key-worker and vulnerable children attend school in-person. Key-worker children are the children of nurses, doctors, delivery drivers— children of people that help keep the country going— and vulnerable children have special needs or work with a social worker. Because of this, we still had around 100 children on site on any given day, and I had to help coordinate that. We had to figure out how to feed all of those children, because deliveries stopped and everything else was shutting down. We also had to find staff who were happy to come in to be with them.
Meanwhile, I had to make sure that all of the online learning was going smoothly and that the phone calls to all of the vulnerable families whose kids were not coming into school were being made. Most days, I was probably working 14-15 hour days. I was constantly venturing in and out of meetings. From the moment I woke up, I would either go onto site or remain at home to attend my meetings. It was relentless. I didn’t have a chance to stop. I didn’t have an opportunity to reflect on everything that was happening.
Because I was in such a vulnerable position of exposing myself to the coronavirus, constantly having to leave home and go to work, I had to ask my ex-husband to keep my children. So, on top of everything I was dealing with, I didn’t get to see my children at all, unless it was through Zoom. I came home to an empty house every night, until I ended up adopting a cat, because it was really weird coming home to nothing. From this experience, I learnt the importance of having a work-life balance. There were many many sacrifices I had to make for my job. I lost my children, I lost the normalcy of school, I lost contact with friends, and I lost the ability to see my mother because she lives in central London. I gave the ultimate sacrifice: having to give my children up. Going forward, there needs to be more of a balance between my work and my life.
Although it was, and still is, a completely mad time, this whole experience made me realise how important friends and family are. I mean, I knew that already, but I had always taken a lot of the little moments with them for granted. You know when you put things off and make excuses like, aw, I’ll see you another time? I don’t think I’ll ever say that again.
Over the years, social media has been demonized a lot. However, as long as you don’t take everything as face-value and you do your research around it, it's been a great way to connect to family. I think the benefits of social media outweigh the negatives, even though there definitely are negatives. As long as people approach social media with positivity, not naivety, it can be such a powerful tool because it really brings people together during these tough times. Social media has helped me feel more connected to the people I love.
Someday, I hope that governments and people in power can become progressive. We do not have a progressive government in England, but I see this pandemic as a real opportunity in history to change things for the future. It would be such a shame for all of the realisations we’ve made during this pandemic to be ignored. We have an opportunity to become more eco-friendly, to change how we approach poverty, to change work-life balances for younger generations... The English education system has been stuck in the Victorian Era for far too long, and we now have an opportunity to diversify education. I’m a maverick— I’ve already tried to approach education through a different lens throughout my career. Outside of the traditional structure for education, there are so many other ways to grow as human beings. But currently, I don’t think that England is progressive enough to experience that change. The right people are not in power.
—Danielle (Guest Contributor)
Written by: Natasha Leong
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