When the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic hit, there was an adrenaline-fuelled response from us at Crossroads School in Johannesburg, Gauteng. A sense of urgency fed our short-term action plans, resulting in the creation of policies and protocols needed for survival. All longer-term implementations or considerations were put on hold. It was a world we did not know and were forced to confront.
Hard lockdown had come with the cataclysmic thud of a drawbridge being closed. We all found ourselves within the confines of our homes, fearing the breach of our proverbial city walls by the horrific COVID-9 virus. We couldn’t have imagined what the coming year was to bring.
As a remedial school, we needed our children physically at school in order to establish the key skills they needed to learn. This was, after all, why they attended Crossroads. ‘How do we do this?’ was the question everyone was thinking and some even ventured to ask. Somehow, we had to transfer what our learners gained from our school environment into their homes. We also needed our children to reach beyond the walls in their minds to access the all-important skills to learn with.
These were not our only challenges. We also needed our staff to transfer their all-important presence from the classroom through their online platform to the children at home.
How can we make it work?
To do this we had to navigate chaos and find the strength within ourselves to keep putting one foot in front of the other. This seemingly simple, yet systematic approach, by all our staff and learners was necessary in order for us to learn, to adjust and to remain fluid in our thinking and to keep on going. There was no such thing as ‘I can’t’, ‘it doesn’t work’, or ‘my Wi-Fi is broken’. We had to keep asking, ‘how can we make it work?’. We trudged forward no matter what. Nothing was going to stop us.
The result of the trudging has been another learning experience as, obviously, not all our children responded the same way. Some children had found it difficult to focus in the classroom, and now thrived online.
We found that some of our children experienced online learning as an opportunity for them to shine. They didn’t have to always be dealing with influences on their emotional being while they were trying to learn in a classroom. They could focus 100 per cent on the actual skills they needed to develop in order to learn the content. It was a stark reminder to us educators, yet again, that not one size fits all and each child learns differently.
On the flip side, some of our learners who functioned in a more traditional way in the classroom really battled. They needed the social exposure and interaction with their peers. They withdrew as the focus was now purely on their participation in an online class and they felt almost more exposed than they had been in the classroom. The lack of contact and connectedness with their peers in that social manner appeared to have an extreme impact on their ability to focus in the online sessions. Thus they experienced the online platform as isolating, remote, and lonely.
These two behaviours manifested differently in the learners’ various therapy sessions. Our learners are used to attending their therapies throughout the day, and not only did we now have to schedule these sessions online and in between other online classes, but we also had to design the teletherapy programme in a way that was suited to what the child had always had access to and could manage online.
It was out of the ordinary, it was against the way we always do things, and we weren’t sure online therapy with six-13-year-olds would work, but what choice did we have? That repetitive voice continued asking, ‘how can we make it work?’. And so on we trudged. One foot in front of the other.
Fortune favours the brave
It was fortuitous that the lockdown came in March 2020. In this initial period of the year, we had just begun our learning process, giving learners the metaphorical Lego blocks they were going to require. However, one could say with the lockdown came the process of building something new, something unknown – literally! We were asking them to build a flying car!
Let me tell you building a flying car is an incredibly scary process, but we had no choice. It was either make a plan or lose precious time with our learners, who each experience barriers to learning. Time was of the essence. And so our flying car was born.
At this point the team came together. The team had always been there but it now looked quite different.
The occupational therapists, speech and language therapists, learning support therapists and educational psychologists pulled together their knowledge and skills and developed expertly designed focussed interventions to facilitate the children’s resilience and flexibility in the changing environment. They provided the children with the blocks they needed to tackle their building project.
The lovely thing about building your own flying car is just that. We could make it 100 per cent our own. We were not confined by the constraints of somebody else’s ideas or restricted by previously decided rules on how-to, when-to, or what-to do. We had needs as a school that were vastly different from the mainstream schools by which we are surrounded.
In our school, as we’re constantly reminded, no two learners are the same. There is no ‘one size fits all’ in any area of the work we do. Our aim is to send our learners back to the mainstream education system as soon as we are confident that they will be successful.
We have bright children with lots of potential. We have children who learn to read in a timeframe comparable to those in the mainstream schooling sector and we also have bright children who learn to read later. For this reason, we have learners who are beginner readers who have lots to offer but require a different modality to express what they know. This is particularly evident in the Foundation Phase. We needed something that would give them access to the curriculum and allow them to engage with the content while facilitating the development of their skills. This is quite a large ask under pressure, in a pandemic, when unable to leave your house! Google Classroom and Seesaw became our tools.
Once the programme was up and running what emerged was children who had not only used the Lego blocks they already had, but were making more blocks and acquiring skills online that they might never have learned in the classroom. Granted, some thrived sooner than others, but everyone was learning at their own rate. Something beautiful was unfolding. Our learners were ‘building flying cars’.
So many examples come to mind, but let me relay the journey of Anna* who is in Grade 5. She naturally is a quiet and withdrawn child in the classroom who needs to be watched very closely to be kept on task. During the initial phase of lockdown, we noticed how Anna was able to focus and concentrate so much more online than she usually was in the classroom. The distracting noise and the lure of her friends wasn’t there to divert her attention. During this time, she blossomed and contributed more than she has before to all online sessions. She truly thrived both from a skill development, scholastic, and emotional perspective.
Another example is one of our Grade 1 learners. Tshepo* came to Crossroads at the beginning of Grade 1. Learning in the classroom was lots of fun and learning happened with songs and rhymes and practical craft activities. There was constant engagement and stimulating methods of learning for him. Going home to learn was very demoralising.
From the start of hard lockdown, things didn’t look very positive. Tshepo was not wanting to do his schoolwork, and appeared anxious and uncertain. With careful guidance from the speech and language therapist, the class teacher, the occupational therapist, and the educational psychologist, Tshepo developed confidence and an ability to interact with his new circumstances that surpassed our wildest expectations. By the end of his Grade 1 year, he was reading at grade level confidently. He was able to work in the classroom with enviable ease.
What the lockdown had done was provide Tshepo with a new skill set, and a flexibility in the way he managed what he was feeling. Tshepo is now in the driver’s seat. The car is not yet flying but the flight plan is developing.
Watch this space!
The support shown to all our children by our staff members has also been distinctive. Just as every child had their own unique challenges that required an individual plan, so did our staff members have their personal stories behind the scenes. The deep emotional digging that each staff member had to do, and continues to do in many cases, was a daily struggle. Yet each small success was a glimmer of hope. The twinkle in a child’s eye and even the humorous moment online kept each and every one of us going. One foot in front of the other.
There is no going back. The educational landscape has been forever changed.
We could not have imagined that the last year-and-a-bit would have played out the way it has, with the magnitude of loss, trauma, mental health issues, economic decimation, and grief.
From an educational platform, we can only reinforce the necessity to build blocks with the children as we have always done, except now in a different way. The tools to mould them into something extraordinary are falling in place, but the greatest gain is in the way our children, and the adults in their lives, have adapted, become flexible, adjusted, and absorbed the turbulence. The emotional agility we have shown as we live through a global pandemic is remarkable. Watch this space. Who knows what we will build next?
*Names have been changed to protect the anonymity of the children concerned.