The Covid crisis: One headmaster’s struggle to minimize the impact of the school closures

Christopher Nicholls, Headmaster at Wellington College International School

Wellington College International School took an unusual approach to the school closure in March last year – and re-wrote the school’s entire calendar in order to minimize the time spent teaching online instead of face-to-face.
The strategy succeeded – until the next shutdown hit Thailand in January.
“We didn’t make any changes to the calendar this time.  We could have tried, but that would have removed the half term break in mid-February, and made the remainder of the term simply too long,” the headmaster says.
If anything, it shows how staff at one school have struggled to minimize the impact of an unpredictable virus in what are obviously difficult times for both the school and the students.

It was a bit of a gamble… but it would turn out to be the right decision, at least for a while.

When international schools in Thailand were ordered to close their campuses and switch to online education in mid-March 2020, some of them were ill-prepared, and it would take them several days to prepare the technology and skills necessary to teach lessons via Zoom or other teleconferencing software.

Wellington College, an international school in Bangkok’s eastern suburbs, was not among them. Here, not a single day was lost in the transition from classroom to online teaching, thanks to the headmaster’s meticulous preparations. But then, he had an advantage, as he was able to closely follow developments in China, where Wellington College also runs three schools, and where the pandemic was a few weeks ahead of Thailand.

”I was in contact with my colleagues running our schools in China. We were discussing what their approach was, what they found was working in online teaching, and what wasn’t working. We spent all the time after the schools in China closed preparing for our own closure, because we knew it was coming,” Christopher Nicholls, headmaster, or Master as it is called in the Wellington system, says.

Making preparations for the closure
When schools were closed, Wellington College was as ready as it could be.
”The staff all received training in how to approach online teaching, which is a very different job to their normal one, and that they had no experience with. There were skills that we knew nothing about until we learnt them from our friends in China. When the closure came we had the online systems in place, the teachers were ready, and we had also prepared our students for it,” he continues.

Wellington College opened just two and a half years ago, and currently has only around 400 students and some 130 staff, of which 70 are teachers. The fact that the school is still relatively small means that there is greater flexibility in the running of the school – which allows for unconventional approaches to be tried when faced with challenges.

Soon, Christopher Nicholls would take advantage of the opportunity this gave, and take measures to limit the negative side effects that came with online teaching.

”When the government said we would be able to reopen by July 1, we knew they would probably stick to it, but that was also going to be the last day of term for us. That would have been pretty annoying. We did still think there was a good chance they might open international schools a couple of weeks before July 1, so we were always thinking that it could be the middle of June. We kind of new that, as much as you could know,” he tells us.

Moving the holidays
As the Songkhran holiday approached in April, based on responses he had received from a survey of parents and staff, he made a decision. He chose to extend the holiday for an extra three weeks. These weeks were then moved to after July 1, with the hope that the schools would be completely open again by then.

It was a gamble that paid off.

”I was very lucky, to be honest. I talked to my staff, and I said: This is the situation. If we extend our Songkhran holiday, we can move these days and teach them after the planned end of term. The chances are that we would then get three extra weeks of face-to-face teaching with the students. It would obviously benefit the students as this would be much better for them than online learning, and it would also benefit the parents too,” he says.

As predicted, the schools were able to reopen on June 15 and return to classroom-based teaching. But while most international schools then closed for their regular summer break around July 1, Wellington College continued for another three weeks.

”In the end, we had three less weeks of online learning than everybody else,” he says.

But this led to new complications. The start of the new school year after the summer break had to be postponed, so that all the staff could have a full holiday. In order to still achieve the 180 days of teaching that the curriculum requires, Christopher Nicholls had to stretch his creativity – and rewrite the upcoming annual schedule.

The autumn holidays were shortened by one week, and moved to coincide with a public holiday, thus only losing four days. Other holidays were cancelled. The day he meets with TIS Monitor is a public holiday, but the school is open anyway.

”I rewrote this year’s calendar in order to take into account those days that we lost at the beginning of 2020. By the end of this school year, in July 2021, we would have taught a full 180 day school year, and we would be back to our normal schedule,” he says.

Second school closure
But then the Covid-19 virus showed it’s unpredictability. In December there was yet another outbreak, and by early January all schools were again ordered to switch to online learning.

For Wellington College, the previously successful solution of rearranging the calendar wasn’t possible a second time. There were simply too few holidays left to move, and cancelling the mid term break in February wasn’t feasible.

”One of the ‘good’ things to come out of Covid – not least in the UK – is a more clear recognition of the importance of everyone’s wellbeing and mental health. Teaching for many weeks with no break, when one’s friends and family are halfway round the world in a Covid hotspot, some of them in hospital, or worse, is very difficult for our teachers; they also need a lot of support,” he says.

This time, he had to accept that there was no way to outsmart the virus, and they would just have to do their best in the given the situation.

”Remote teaching is not the same as face-to-face, so we worked hard on lesson design, and on supply of plenty of materials for parents to pick up from school every week.  For example, we sent musical instruments home for all the students in one yeargroup, so they could make good progress while they were away,” Christopher Nicholls says.

A supportive school community.
He also tells us he has received lots of support from the parents for his unconventional solution to the Covid-19 school closure.

”We have always had a very positive and supportive group of parents. I don’t want to speak for them, but I think we were all very please we were able to do this,” he says.

The fact that the school is small and thus more flexible contributed to the successful result. Christopher Nicholls does not believe that his solution would have worked for larger schools.

”The bigger the school, the more difficult this approach would have been. Ultimately, at some point it becomes impossible, having too many people with too many commitments to be able to do it. I think we were very lucky,” he concludes.



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