I recently read some reflections on life during a pandemic from a fellow school leader in Melbourne.
My predecessor at JCoSS, Jeremy Stowe-Lindner, now principal at Bialik College, wrote in his column for The Australian Jewish News about some of the unexpected blessings of lockdown – quieter streets, a new sense of perspective, the joys of Zoom Shabbat tables and the confident determination that the community will pull together and survive.
I read them with a mixture of recognition, envy and grim amusement. Remember when it felt like that in the UK? It’s early days in Australia but, with a death rate so far of just 16 per million compared to the UK’s 609 per million, they look unlikely to get anywhere near where we are, either in health statistics or in the impact on the economy, or schools or the public mood, but things change daily for us all.
I hope they avoid it all: having written very similar sentiments in April and May, my sense now – certainly on the headteacher WhatsApp groups – is that we are battling against darkening despondency.
When the advice for reopening schools was updated at 7.30pm on the Friday before term started, the reaction among heads was weary resignation rather than outrage, as if even our capacity for anger had been exhausted by the ghastliness of the previous fortnight for schools.
How, as the academic and Jewish new year begins, are we to rekindle hope?
And how can we grasp the things that we learned during closure so as to keep the best of them?
The first priority is to get our schools open again, to reunite as a community face to face. Of course the economy needs that, but what motivates me is the joy, not the duty. Being back together – for all the new routines and constraints we will be navigating – is by far the best healer of the disease of the past five months. The sheer fact of physical proximity (appropriately distanced, sanitised and one-way-systematised…) restores sanity, humanity and perspective that just can’t be conveyed fully on a screen.
We saw this before our very eyes in the last few weeks of the summer term, as small numbers of staff and students returned. We entered the building tentatively, fearfully, even resentfully. By mid-morning, we were smiling, relaxed, rejuvenated. Here is normality – albeit an altered one. Here is familiarity. Here we can reconnect using the full palette of 3D interpersonal tools and be real to each other again. It is like water to the thirsty.
As we drink that water, though, we need a keen alertness and readiness to learn: not only are there new habits to get into – attentiveness to hygiene, changes to classroom layout, new routes around schools, the choreography required to move 1,500 people safely around a confined space – but we must also be alive to the different ways closure has affected members of the school community, both adults and children.
For families with a comfortable workspace and a computer each, where parents had the capacity and inclination to support learning, where children were self-motivated and biddable, lockdown was not all bad, and the impact on learning and well-being was small and recoverable. For less advantaged families, or those who endured illness or bereavement, it was truly an affliction.
The progress and attainment gap between those with the most and least cultural capital was too wide even before the pandemic; we need to identify fast where it has widened further or where other kinds of upset and isolation have taken a toll, and take action to restore and repair. When confidence in government, institutions and experts has been battered – in particular thanks to the mishandling of public exam results – schools have to model calm and wise leadership and restore faith in fairness.
The progress and attainment gap between those with the most and least cultural capital was too wide even before the pandemic; we need to identify fast where it has widened further or where other kinds of upset and isolation have taken a toll, and take action to restore and repair.
Above all, we need to frame the story of the past months in the right narrative. Some have talked of the need for a ‘recovery curriculum’ in schools, warning that a term’s closure has permanently damaged a generation of children. But talk of ‘recovery’ presupposes something from which we have to recover, and talk of damage can create the very problem it is warning against. There have indeed been some big challenges – but we need to tell the story in a way that doesn’t pathologise them and trap us into negativity.
As Dr Mark Berelowitz [director of the Royal Free’s Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service] has observed about the boys trapped in the Thai cave in 2018, the fact they approached their experience with trust and an eye on the needs of the group rather than the individual was key to their survival. They did not turn a drama into a trauma, and neither must we.
Schools are steeped in values, in humanity and in morality. They are one of the most important repositories of these vital resources, and Jewish schools even more so than others. My prayer, as we move through a month of reflection and repentance towards the fresh sweetness of a new year, is that we tap back into those deep and refreshing streams, count again our own unexpected blessings, and resume our position as a light to others, showing wider society what community, hope and learning should look like.
- Patrick Moriarty, Headteacher, JCoSS