During the academic year 2019-2020, the Covid-19 crisis has obliged schools and other educational institutions to implement distance learning or else risk jeopardizing their programme for the term. This article describes in detail how we at Ecole Internationale Montgomery (EIM) coped with the challenge but also seized the opportunities provided within this new paradigm.
Our distance learning plan ensures that the learning objectives of our students are met and that their skills are reinforced, taking into account the context of confinement in a flexible and efficient way.
PHASE 0 – THE PLANNING
By the end of February, when our students were out of school during their Carnival holidays, EIM management and staff surveyed the situation in Italy and understood that the pandemic would soon get to Brussels. At that time, we decided to take immediate action and consulted with some of our families about their view on the matter; the international expertise of some of them (including Italians, but also Belgians, Poles, and some very relevant countries from far-east Asia) helped us understand at that same point that a serious risk of public health was spreading towards Belgium, and that we should anticipate action for a potential scenario of distance learning. It was clear that the first step to take was training our staff and students with a set of online tools that we selected among the different applications available on the market. Having decided to go for the Google Education Suite for its variety of tools and ease of use, we spent the whole first week of March making sure that both our teachers as well as learners in every class, including the primary and the secondary school, were proficient with what they would have to use as working equipment at home. At the same time, we devised a planification for a new weekly distance learning schedule adapted to the needs of our various age groups. A balance had to be struck between safeguarding the quality of our education as well as the mental health of our students by avoiding screen time overload. An important consideration was also that family life has changed with the confinement restrictions and tele-working. In the lower primary school, lessons were grouped in blocks of three periods per day in the 1st grade, four in the 2nd grade and five in the 3rd grade. 4th and 5th graders saw their theatre and sports classes cancelled during this first phase. In the Secondary, we grouped the lesson in blocks to allow for project and research-based tasks as well as presentations and Q&A sessions. When this was ready in the beginning of the second week of March, we shortly awaited for a clear sign coming from the public authorities. We had been implementing sanitary measures in the school premises and we had cancelled all trips and outings long before, but it soon became obvious to our management that factors such as public transportation or contagion with third parties posed a risk to the health of our learning community (even in the absence of infections, and with a lower exposure to risks due to our reduced size). For the reason of prudence, plus the responsibility towards the wider Brussels area, we decided to close the school and start implementing our distance learning plan. When the National Security Council ordered the mandatory confinement of all schools in Belgium, our students were already using their new tools for learning which they had been practicing with during the previous week.
An online schedule that, depending on the grade level, starts at 8:15am and finishes at 3:30pm, takes a significant deal of coordination and managing so that it can work efficiently. The focus of our management has been -and remains- the assurance that all students and teachers are connected in real time for each class period. Naturally, the fact of having started from day one with our plan, more than three weeks before the Easter holidays, gave us a great cruising speed already in the month of March. Because tutorials had been prepared and shared among teachers, students and parents together, the first days ran smoothly and every student benefited immediately from all the lessons planned in the new schedule. The tools that we had chosen proved to be quite flawless. There were practically no issues in terms of connectivity from home and both parents as well as students were actually very excited and optimistic about the experience. Feedback right before the Easter break was one of utmost gratitude and satisfaction. This is a key feature, because it heavily influenced our course of action. At the same time, those three weeks constituted a valuable experience in order to continue on the same path, with a very limited need for readjustments. During the spring break, we decided to add Google Jamboard to our original suite, plus the recording option of video-conferences, which is useful for science practicals or lectures.
After the Easter break, Belgium overcame the peak of the crisis and its National Security Council established the conditions for a partial return to class in the two last weeks of May. The competence of our teachers as well as the support of our parent body showed a new solid support for action. Instead of disrupting the good dynamics of distance learning, the school leadership communicated to all members of the EIM community, 24 hours after the administration regulations were published, that there would be a return to school in September, but not in May or June, except for the last two grade levels, who would be required to come to school for examinations in June. Extending two further months of distance learning advised once more for finetuning. In the primary school, sports was added from the 1st grade in real time, and one of the five weekly periods of English was replaced by music and movement, while one of the five periods of French was replaced by either dance or cooking. In the secondary section, one week off-screen (but not off-school!) was provided for each class according to a specific schedule, in order to balance the two last months of spring and the school year. As time has gone by, our teachers have added countless Apps and interactive digital programs to enrich their lessons. This is much appreciated by our students and helps them stay engaged in their learning. All in all, it has never been more true that “every cloud has a silver lining”. Where the current scenario of the world calls for a depression, we have found that a challenge has produced a leap forward. Students have continued to develop skills aligned with the IB curriculum by being connected from home with their peers and educators. Teachers have continued performing their jobs as if there had been no crisis - undisrupted from labor concerns, and also feeling that management had discussed with them in depth before deciding on the roadmap. When we start the academic year 2020-2021 in September, we shall feel stronger and more eager than ever to continue researching, thinking critically and caring for our society. ECOLE INTERNATIONALE MONTGOMERY, Brussels 2020