The lowest ebb is the turn of the tideHenry Wadsworth Longfellow
Since I returned to Moldova on the 16th August, starting in earnest the preparations for what we all knew would be like no other academic year, there have been two distinct moments of complete relaxation where my thinking switched only to time, moment, place. The first was thanks to my dear colleague, Olesea, who kindly invited all our new international colleagues and their families, plus our old international colleagues and local ones, to have a wonderful picnic in the hills north west of Chisinau. There we saw her father’s famous beehives and sampled some of the best honey I have ever tasted. Despite the new way we all have to meet and socialise now, we managed to enjoy the stunning countryside, amazing local food, wonderful local wine and of course delicious local honey. There have been few occasions this year when a day was so peaceful and enjoyable and it was something we all needed. I was even more pleased that the TES International saw and liked the idea and asked me to contribute an article about the experience: How to Welcome New Staff for their publication.
The second such moment happened in mid-September, the day of my father’s 80th birthday, which was celebrated by my family online, such is the 2020 Covid way. I was taken by local friends to the vineyards and beautiful landscape around Donici, near Orhei. This is the season for grape harvesting but, like many cancelled events, special birthdays, anniversaries, the format has changed somewhat. We can see the evidence of this in the preparations already in place to manage the expectations of children & families for Hallowe’en, Bonfire Night, Thanksgiving and Christmas. I took a few moments out that day in the vines from what has been an overwhelming baptism of fire into the second half of this crisis in education for 2020, and sat staring at the beautiful lake, the rolling vineyards as people picked the grapes for next year’s wine and just basked in the tranquility of the Moldovan countryside for an afternoon. I later joined my family in the UK as we wished and sang him happy birthday, toasting his health with good wine. We need such moments in life, even more so now, if we are going to finish this year and tackle what lies ahead in 2021.
Looking back at September, the clear changes from the autumnal equinox, the rains that have finally soaked the land here and now the cooler air and shorter days as we reach October, it seems unreal that we were able to launch a new academic year with such hope, whilst always planning for scenarios beyond my team’s control. The wider society in Moldova, on the whole, has seemed immune, and not in a good sense, to practising the very simple safety measures around clean mask, distance and hygiene. It feels both frustrating and futile trying to control what is beyond the scope of our immediate, local community. Nor is it just the “ordinary people” riding the buses or shopping in the markets: It is people from all walks of life, people who we sorely need as role models, demonstrating best health and hygiene practice so we can get case numbers down.
When the first cases occurred last week in our school community, with transmission occurring outside the school, the plans and procedures we have put in place went straight into action. As a result, our school now operates with a hybrid learning model forged in the difficult days of lockdown and we connect those learning in the classroom with those learning at home.
This lax or disbelieving mindset is still something we see in all societies. I was shocked to see the “anti-mask” protests in Trafalgar Square last weekend in the name of “freedom”. We still have such a long way to go with facing this crisis and it is why most of us don’t believe this will “all be over by Christmas”. The patterns of our societies living with Covid19 are set to plague us (no deliberate pun intended), well into 2021. I have, nevertheless been thankful to see the change in mindset at a micro level in my own school community. Everyone wears their mask, safe social distances are maintained, my extraordinary colleagues are keeping the daily lessons in the classroom and online going to deliver meaningful learning. We have borrowed a lot from the DLP used successfully here for three months: all our meetings are online, my assemblies, on the UN’s Peace day and 75th anniversary from its founding last week and on Pushkin’s 200th anniversary to Bessarabia (Moldova) this week, are delivered virtually from my room. The teaching and learning briefing is online every Wednesday and, as I have said in weekly global online conferences ad infinitum, educators are adaptable. Very adaptable. But they are also very human going into October exhausted.
Part of that exhaustion is the reality check that is still needed in most societies. Hearing heads of organisations proclaim they are “Covid secure” this summer replaced that other nonsense phrase that was almost becoming as popular as the now long defunct, “whaaaat’s uppppp???” and “deep dive”. Well, we have all taken a “deep dive” into keeping our organisation’s head above water and continuing to function successfully in the biggest operational existentialist crisis. Glib, hackneyed phrases lifted from Forbes and HBR articles will not provide a successful, strategic plan. Nowhere is “Covid secure”: That must be the starting point for any community and organisation. That overused phrase has created such false confidence where it has been repeated and this crisis doesn’t need any more misinformation or vastly inflated egos confusing those who are simply trying to cope and manage day to day with basic routines of work, school and shops. We have replicated the best of what we saw already being used in SE Asia, from the WHO & UNICEF, from our global partners’ examples. We have a wonderfully modern, World Class campus that allows physical distancing and outside space for learning. We have the digital capabilities and experience. We have a very savvy and supportive school community, but we, as for every other organisation globally, are not “Covid secure” because such a thing does not exist. We do not want the complacency that has seen this virus wreak havoc across the World in 2020 and still with no end in sight.
The challenge for us all now going into winter and towards 2021, is how we can adapt, balance the fundamentals of life like going to school, going to work, getting fresh air and exercise, marking events and passages of life, whilst also avoiding become blasé as many did over the summer, thinking this was all over. Covid remains very real for so many people and it is becoming more virulent in Moldova, as it is in other communities around the globe. My absolute hope, prayer and 3am thought as a school leader right now, is to keep my community safe and to ensure that the heavy burden I carry doesn’t mean I am unable to continue to lead my teams as we respond to the myriad challenges this crisis continues to throw up. This means we must remain hopeful in the things we do and that we continue to look beyond the crisis. That is an extremely difficult task when, anecdotally, we are already seeing the difficulties children are facing in the new school year, many in entirely new settings with no real transition and in the very real uncertainty of another similar exams fiasco in the summer of 2021. Seeing students in lockdown, confined to British universities’ halls of residences isn’t exactly the best advert for higher education right now either.
I met with colleagues from the COBIS Black Sea schools group the other Friday and it was a very positive meeting, sharing what we had all been through to get our schools back in some form. It was also a chance to look ahead and plan the year with opportunities for our young people and colleagues so we continue to develop what it means to be a global citizen and the notion of international mindedness. We cannot let a dark narrative prevail, especially in these last few months, when we know there is a great deal of uncertainty globally in events like the US election, the Brexit no deal and, closer to the Black Sea, the fighting that broke out this week between Armenia and Azerbaijan. These are two countries I am fond of and I hope this de-escalates soon.
We began the second series of the Founders’ Lectures this week and HE, Steven Fisher, UK ambassador to Moldova, gave a great talk around his role as a diplomat, also taking questions from everything on Brexit to his favourite British foods: Tea with milk and fish and chips, for the curious amongst you. My colleague from Liverpool, Graham, heartily agreed. These opportunities to hear individuals working in the fields of humanitarian crisis, in the UN, in diplomacy or in SDGs, are valuable ones especially as we are still left with a World really wanting leadership in areas such as climate change.
I was asked this week, by a colleague from Cambridge International, about the ways in which this crisis is changing education and what challenges I see ahead of us. I like to think that none of us are continuing to post “Covid secure” in the same certain way that English schools used to banner post “OfSTED Outstanding” on their publicity, but in the week where all the things we thought were certain in education really did get a kaleidoscopic shake, my article for the Cambridge International Blog discusses the things, going into 2021, that I think we ought to watch and try to shape for a more hopeful and optimistic future when we no longer have to mention Covid ever again.
We know children and young people are incredibly resilient from stories of hope in ongoing crisis situations in war torn countries such as Yemen and Syria, where schools have been established in the ruins and education continues to build something for the future. The impact of this year will not and should not be forgotten simply based on the total devastation it had on examinations around the World in the Summer. The longer it lasts, the more issues we will see developing from it, not least the daily disruption and uncertainty in every school trying to operate and somehow model normality based on pre Covid19. The late Sir Ken Robinson, mentioned at the start of this crisis, the unique opportunity to reimagine curricula and the way we prepare our young people for future challenges with the necessary skills. He particularly emphasised the importance of this against the backdrop of this biggest global crisis yet of the 21st century challenging the best scientific and political minds in finding a solution. John Hattie talks about this being the “golden ticket” and an accelerator of change that really will make it a paradigm shift in the way digital capabilities transform our learning: how we learn, the role of the teacher and the very notion of physical school. UNICEF and the OECD have highlighted the devastation having no access to education is causing, as well as the educational apartheid that is opening up between those schools who have the capabilities and platform to accelerate and those that will get further behind and which unable to prepare their students with education to access the global economy and society as the 21st century wears on.
School closures have also effectively taken the focus and momentum off the global climate action protest movement led by young people. Greta Thunberg said recently that the Covid19 crisis has set things back at least two years. The climate change crisis has not been put on hold or even reversed by pausing the global daily commute for a few months. Optimistically, the return of school communities, in masks, but physically back to school, as I saw when my students passed under a beautiful rainbow arch of hope to start the promise of a new academic year, has been appreciated as a wonderful, essential, life transforming public good called education, this Autumn. The certainty and routines of school are back, but huge question marks have been raised as to how we take exams: online, CAG or the old way next year? Will there even be exams next year? The role of school inspectors, especially when we are in a situation of Maslow before Bloom on so many levels, has been a debate in England and many countries. Schools are just trying to get back to physically operating in an existentialist environment and yet there remain further questions, such as the suitability of traditional qualifications and whether they have had their day. If so, what would we replace them with? Communities are finding just how resourceful they truly were, what was important and what wasn’t and how adaptable we can really be when needed to ensure we continue the learning process for young people. Covid is a great educational leveler for the simple reason that it hasn’t gone away, won’t any time soon and because what worked at the start of 2020 is not necessarily what is needed now. A DLP becomes hybrid learning now, for example, when classes are sent home for 14 days. And I repeat: the impossibility of any organisation being “Covid secure” until there is a vaccine must also be understood and communities should not be given false hope when nothing is Covid secure. We can only mitigate without a vaccine, but changing our behaviour can help. Getting used to the ping pong effect of isolation, physical school and the energy needed to keep it all together will be the story of 2020-21 as school leaders try to look ahead to a life after Covid.