Jeff Hart: “Children have a natural tendency and need to touch, interact and explore”

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Following the press conference at the weekend by Minister of Education Leela Devi Dookun-Luchoomun on the reopening of schools following the lockdown period, Weekly speaks to Jeff Hart, headmaster at Clavis International Primary School and Rishi Nursimulu, founder of Dukesbridge, about what activities their schools organised during the lockdown, the effect the confinement period may have had on their pupils, the ministry’s decision of keeping the children at home for longer and how they plan to address the health and safety challenges when their schools resume.

We’ve spent about two-and-a-half months in confinement. What was the effect of that on children in particular?

This is difficult to know or answer. The confinement has been a unique experience for each family and student. Depending on children’s ages, the level of support they receive at home, the resources parents have access to, the technical literacy of both children and parents, and the pupil’s ability to adapt to distance learning conditions. We expect the effect to be quite different across our pupils. We will not be able to fully assess these effects until we return to school, after which we will establish plans for meeting and supporting the different student needs. Besides academic levels, we know there will be a wide spectrum of communication, social, and self-management skills pupils will have made varied degrees of progress in. Many students have been thriving during distance learning in confinement while others have been struggling.

What kind of activities did your schools organise to mitigate those effects?

We attempted to maintain as many elements and routines as possible from across the pupils’ regular learning programme. The how and frequency of these elements depends greatly on the students’ ages and developmental abilities but all homeroom and French teachers have incorporated recorded video lessons alongside interactive meetings over Zoom. Throughout the week, students also have video lessons from PE and Music, and other areas like Art, ICT and Library either plan with the homeroom teachers, incorporating elements into daily learning activities, or do stand-alone lessons.  

How about special needs children?

Special needs and English as an Additional Language (EAL) teachers have been able to continue with weekly individual and small-group learning sessions as well. We have tried to provide a variety of experiences which include individual learning activities through Seesaw, our primary connection tool with pupils and parents, and personalised Maths and Literacy skill development through different online programmes we purchased. We also try to include as many hands-on activities as possible and even continue weekly Zoom assemblies for each year level.

The Ministry of Education’s decision to reopen the schools in August was met with dissatisfaction. Don’t you think it’s prudent to wait for more clarity to send the kids back to school?

With the current environment, I cannot see issues with schools reopening in August that cannot be managed safely; however, I do agree there is confusion with some information being disseminated. I am hopeful that when further official information is released that we can move ahead with August openings more confidently.

Though we have not had any local cases for a few weeks now, there is no certainty that Covid-19 has packed up and gone, is there?

I am not an authority on the virus and have to rely on the same information everyone else has access to. I trust the advice that the Ministry of Health uses from medical and science professions has our best interests in mind. However, one thing is clear, nothing is certain when it comes to Covid-19. With the World Health Organization stating that the virus will likely never go away without a vaccine, we will continue to hope for the best and plan for the worst. Our schools are not just considering a Plan A and Plan B but, depending what the future brings, we are wise to also have Plans C, D and E at the ready.

Re-opening the schools comes with a set of conditions like children wearing masks and not playing with each other. How will that work out in practice?

If there is one thing you can expect to happen with children, it is the unexpected. Children have a natural tendency and need to touch, interact and explore where their curiosities lead them, despite telling them what they should or should not do. For our youngest ones, socialisation and play-based learning are the foundations for how they develop best. Additionally, how these children communicate and interact with their teachers are significantly influenced by facial expressions and physical cues. We are exploring new ways of using our spaces and even the use of clear face shields, but the conditions being proposed will still present challenges, especially for younger children.

There are autistic children, children with special needs etc. Will they suffer more through a prolonged forced break?

This depends on the individual needs of each child and the circumstances at home. These children certainly benefit from the personalised attention that a parent might be able to provide throughout the day; however, many pupils have individual learning plans that focus on specific understandings and skills development, often under the support of a full-time learning support assistant or a part-time inclusion teacher. We are fortunate that our inclusion teachers are still able to plan with teachers and do weekly Zoom meetings with their pupils, but the lack of consistent and explicit in-person instruction from Special Educational Needs specialists will impact the children’s progress.

Do you see any rationale behind re-opening schools in stages, i.e. some going back to school earlier than others?

Dates and protocols have been circulated, both officially and unofficially, but we would welcome more guidance as to the reasons so that we can ensure our planning and preparations are robust and can cater for any potential changes as more information becomes available.

In what frame of mind will the children be when they get back to school after what is arguably one of the most unpleasant experience in their lives?

It has been an experience (and undoubtedly a unique one at that) but I hesitate to say it is the most unpleasant experience in their lives for all children. Some have thrived and have developed in ways we never could have imagined while others have struggled to adapt and this experience has been detrimental to their development. The challenges and frustrations that children and their parents are facing are extremely difficult and it is hard to predict what their frame of minds will be when they return. Regardless, during our interactive sessions, it is encouraging that we continue to see happy, excited, and engaged children who are eager to participate, interact with their peers, and learn. We need to continue to do whatever we can so they do not lose their motivation to learn.

What measures have been put in place to deal with the various issues they are likely to be experiencing?

For our teachers, they are very eager to return to the classroom and to be with their pupils again. Being separated and adapting to the changes has been an immensely challenging ordeal for everyone, but it has been an ordeal our teachers have managed amazingly well and must be congratulated on. Their initial week back with pupils will have similarities to our first week of the school year. We will be getting to know them again and doing extensive assessments that will inform teaching and learning for the coming weeks or months. New learning goals for children will need to be determined and changes to our programme will need to be considered. Once we better understand the social, emotional, and academic strengths and areas for development, then we can choose the best measures moving forward. There may be a heavier reliance on our counselling, EAL and inclusion teachers for guidance and support with many teachers during those initial weeks getting pupils back into their routines but, given how we have been able to continue the pupils’ learning, we hope this added support will be minimal.

I understand the private schools had a meeting to discuss the re-opening of the schools. What was the outcome of the meeting?

While each school has its own mandate, when it comes to supporting pupils, being collectively strong and knowledgeable is in everyone’s best interest. Throughout this ordeal, we have fortunately been engaged in discussions, sharing good practice and ideas with our colleagues regularly. Recent news has introduced some questions, particularly for those who have different calendars, practices, and curriculums from our government school peers. Our ongoing discussions are always in support of our pupils, to gain a better shared understanding of what is expected under the law, and to take a collaborative approach to the issues we face. Everyone supports the health and safety requirements for our pupils and staff. Once we have confirmed our understanding in all areas, we can move forward more confidently over the coming weeks and months.

If you met the minister of education tomorrow, what would you tell her?

We, like all Mauritian schools, know the challenges in determining what decisions are the “right” ones to make and, in many instances, we may not know what is right until we have the benefit of hindsight. Even then, we may not know. With that in mind, the “right” decision is one that considers health and family needs, the government requirements, a school's mission and beliefs, and the students' developmental needs. What is “right” for one school may not be right for another. Like many other unaided private schools, we feel confidently able to meet the health and safety requirements, including social distancing and logistical adaptions to the school. We also feel able to determine how and when we can safely integrate our year levels back to school without weeks or even months between when some levels can return. We fully support the intentions and protocols of the Ministry of Education because we know that student wellbeing is their priority; however, we hope that we can have the flexibility to implement these in ways we feel will be right for our students and school community.

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