In early August, Thebarton Senior College experienced an unwelcome encounter with Covid-19. In the final analysis, the outbreak was quickly contained and the news story slipped from sight, but there may be lessons for other schools.
When a crisis comes, it often comes at the most awkward and unplanned for moment. In the case of Thebarton, the principal (Eva Kannis-Torry) was first alerted to the problem on a Sunday morning. A student emailed the principal to inform her that a friend, another student of the college, had tested positive. Within an hour the Department for Education contacted the principal and started to walk her through the process that was to follow. Essentially, even though it was Sunday there were two imperatives that had to managed immediately. The first was to provide the essential information for contact tracing. The second was to communicate with all students and staff, informing them that the site was to be closed from the Monday, for the next two days, for deep cleaning.
Working from home to access school data, with support from the Assistant Principal, Information Systems, the principal was able to provide the contact tracing team with the necessary information – class lists, addresses, contact details, emergency contacts – for the relatively small group of students identified. Concurrently, the principal also worked closely with DfE personnel to ensure that the information about the school closure for the three-day deep clean was sent out to the entire school community. The means employed was an SMS with a URL link and a follow-up email. This particular communication was prepared by DfE in conjunction with SA Health.
Essentially, on a Sunday afternoon, working from home, the principal was able to access and forward to the relevant authorities key student data, and send out a critical message to the entire college community of approximately 1,200 individuals. Moreover, a follow up by the college indicated that only a handful of students failed to receive the key communication. The problem, in the one or two cases, was a change of phones. It was an impressive achievement and underlined the critical importance of school information systems.
Importantly, Thebarton had prepared students for such an event. Earlier in the year, in the first few weeks of the pandemic, the college had advised the students that there could well be a situation where they received such a communication, outside normal school hours, from the principal. Given the distinctive make up of the student body, with a large number of ‘new arrivals’ and students from refugee and immigrant backgrounds, the college considered it essential to provide this kind of advance practice. The college even advised students that if they received school communications and they were unsure about either the message’s veracity or its content they needed to check the message with other students. Another insight that emerged from this exercise was that the individual student’s mobile phone was the key means of communication for students. In fact, other experiences at the time confirmed for the college that the mobile phone also served as the most important digital learning device for students.
The deep clean process occurred over three days – Monday to Wednesday – with only the principal present on the site for the first two days. On the third day (Wednesday) the principal was joined by senior management to work on the re-opening of the site to staff and students. On the Thursday, the staff returned to prepare for the return of students on the Friday.
From early in 2020 because of Covid and social-distancing requirements – exacerbated by the lack of suitable venues for large meetings – the college had been employing Zoom for staff meetings and such a meeting was held when the staff returned on the Thursday. The basic plan was to debrief the staff, address any staff concerns and ensure that when the students returned the next day there was a common message about what had happened and what the current situation was. There was strong input from SA Health on these matters. The college was keen to create a sense of reassurance and calm. At the end of the school day on Thursday, the college believed it had everything in hand for the return of students the next day.
But for the second time in less than a week, Covid proved that it did not respect normal time lines. In her car on the way home from the college, the principal was contacted by the Department. She was told that there were urgent discussions then going on between the Department and SA Health. There had been 2 more students who had tested positive. Strategies and protocols had to be put in place immediately and, while it was regrettable, it was almost certain that before the principal could effectively do anything, by way of alerting staff or students, the news would be broadcast on TV that evening. That is what happened, and staff and students learnt from the TV news that approximately 50 students and 4 staff would need to be quarantined in ‘medi-hotels’, while the majority of staff and students would be required to self-isolate at home, from that night (Thursday). There were follow-up communications from the college but the first sense of what was to happen came via the evening news services.
A more positive feature of the communication process at the time was that the students who who were considered close contacts and required to move to the medi-hotels were asked to report to the college first. The students were instructed to take taxis to the college. From there they were transferred by bus. The significance of this arrangement was that the principal and the assistant principal in charge of the New Arrivals Program were able to be at the college to meet the students and provide a sense of reassurance, and give them on overview of what was involved in the process. This proved to be a critically important step. The staff and students directly affected by the requirement to move into quarantine had had no warning or notice of any kind and, not surprisingly, there were instances where the unexpected directive caused significant anxiety and family dislocation.
One group of students managed to get to the college that night (Thursday) and the rest came the next morning (Friday). The principal was impressed by the professionalism and responsive support of the various agencies, including SAPOL, that facilitated the process. Fortunately, the students were 18 or older and were able to go into quarantine by themselves. The same situation where the students were not ‘adult’ would present the Department with significant challenges and, presumably, would require a different strategy.
At the point that SA Health issued the directives for either isolation at home or quarantine in the medi-hotels, it was obviously concerned that it faced a potentially very serious outbreak of Covid. Apparently, what made the potential of an outbreak so alarming was the fact that the students came from such an extensive geographical area. Obviously, Thebarton is not the typical neighbourhood high school and the students come from right across the metro area, including from the northern suburbs. In many cases, students catch several buses to the campus, often passing through the city. Moreover, in some cases students attending Thebarton also attend other schools and, in fact, there were connections between Thebarton and all three school sectors. Clearly, SA Health reasoned it had to act decisively. As things turned out, the situation was contained quickly and it appears that there were no additional positive cases. Community contacts outside the school were also traced and there were approximately another 20 contacts who were also quarantined in the medi-hotels.
The college received support for its students from a range of agencies: The Edge Church Community, Foodbank, Australian Refugee Association, Multicultural Youth SA and STTARS (Survivors of Torture and Trauma Assistance and Rehabilitation Service). The principal was struck by the number and range of unsolicited expressions of support and practical help. She also commented very positively on the overall level and nature of support, throughout the entire experience, that came from DfE, at all levels.
The principal organised another Zoom meeting with all staff – isolating at home – on the following Monday so that there could be a debrief and also the implementation of the formal ‘working from home’ arrangement. The plan was for mentor teachers to contact their students to check on their well being and ascertain if there were any outstanding needs. For example, some students had not been able to do food shopping before isolation, and there were others without digital learning devices. Then, when the time was right, subject teachers were to commence on-line delivery.
Overall, the principal was very happy with both the contact and support the ‘mentor’ teachers were able to offer the students in either isolation or quarantine. Staff relied on both email and phones for contact with students. Staff employed an agreed set of questions developed by the college’s senior management team to identify relevant issues. There were short, follow-up Zoom meetings throughout the week to ensure that the staff were debriefed and updated on what was happening. They also served to clarify and resolve any issues that arose. Senior Management met daily to develop relevant communications for leaders and teachers.
The principal believed that the experience with remote instruction earlier in the year, even though limited, proved very valuable. Also, staff were certainly aware of and prepared for the ‘2 weeks of prepared lessons’ arrangement and had little trouble in moving to it quickly. While the effectiveness of remote learning remains dependent on the actual subject being taught, the principal was impressed that even in courses involving ‘new arrivals’ students, where there was limited English, teachers found ways of maintaining an on-line educational program. Of course, it is significant that, as for earlier in the year, the actual length of remote schooling was limited – one week – and it is possible that the perceived success of the effort was influenced by the shortness of the experience. The other point to keep in mind is that the school’s cohort is more ‘senior’ than for the conventional high school. At the same time, as noted, the principal was impressed by the efforts of the staff to move quickly to remote delivery, the overall success of their efforts and the appreciation of the students for their teachers’ efforts.
Staff were able to employ the same digital technology to organise various forms of professional dialogue – for example at faculty level – and other support strategies for themselves over the period of self-isolation. From the beginning of the year, specifically in response to Covid, Thebarton has been able to maximise the benefits of its information and learning systems. The college is currently planning for an even heavier emphasis on the same technology for next year and a greater reserve of on-line teaching materials.
In terms of the general impact of Covid on the college’s education program over the entire year, the principal noted the effect on attendance. From the very first impact of Covid at the start of the year, student attendance has been an ongoing concern. Again, apart from any other issue, the distinctive geographical spread of the student population – and related issues such as the number of bus trips involved to get to and from the college, combined with obvious limits to social-distancing on public transport – has played a part in compromising attendance. Obviously, the episodes of deep cleaning, school closure and isolation further discouraged attendance. In turn, compromised attendance has increased anxiety for staff over their students’ performance. This is particularly the case for Stage 2 teachers.
Schools generally are very good at communication, principally because they understand the importance of quality communication and they are skilled at employing a diverse and sophisticated range of means to reach all members of the school’s community. Also, schools employ communication not just to inform but to build, maintain and strengthen positive connections with their communities. Certainly Thebarton with its diverse student cohort was aware of its unique challenges and strengths in this area, and this awareness obviously predated Covid. At the same time, the lesson for all schools is that there can be ‘communication’ issues when, as happened in the case of Thebarton, other authorities and agencies need to communicate directly with the school community.
Unsurprisingly, in situations like this, members of the school community can claim there are ‘poor communications’ or a ‘lack of communications’ . The reality is that people often use the term ‘communication’ as code for ‘anxiety’, ‘frustration’, and ‘confusion’. In critical and rapidly changing situations, where external agencies – SA Health, SAPOL, DfE – need to issue explicit directives, detailed instructions, as well as essential background knowledge, there is always going to be a level of confusion and ‘push back’. For example, all those in the community directly involved in Covid-type critical situations are going to be worried about what it means for themselves and their families, young and, more particularly, old. Legal protocols covering privacy and confidentiality mean that certain information cannot be released, even in situations where people might think it needs to be or they consider they have a ‘right to know’. There will be concern over the precise meaning of terms – for example, in the case of Thebarton there was the critical difference between a ‘close’ and a ‘casual’ contact and what the difference meant in practice. Another problem can be that ‘co-created’ information – information created jointly by several government departments – can have a very different ‘look and feel’ from what normally appears as school communication. There is also the issue of the particular filter or lens of the person reading the communication; and the reality that sometimes the written word, particularly the formally written word, does not get through.
Obviously, in the type of situation faced by Thebarton, schools are going to lose some degree of control over the area of communication. Other government agencies and departments are going to exercise control over what happens in the school and they – often in a co-constructed way – are going to communicate directly with the school community. At the same time, the Thebarton case demonstrated that the school’s own experience and expertise in the area of communication will be a major factor in the successful management of the crisis. This experience and expertise in the area of communication covers not just the quality of the messaging but the information technology that sits behind it and enables the school to reach all its community in what effectively amounts to ‘real time’. If Thebarton demonstrates one strategic lesson it is that schools need to review their communication policy and practices against the possibility of such an episode.
The key learning for principals is that they need to be ready to handle the crisis in even the most unexpected and difficult circumstances. It is also very clear that such crisis situations underline their role as the school ‘leader’.