By Zenisha Shah, CEI Writer and Counselor at Innisfree House School
What might have been the response if you asked a student or teacher a year ago if they imagined having all their classes, interaction with classmates, and school events online? They would probably have been surprised or confused by the idea. Today, online school is reality for a huge population of students all over the world.
Schools and the education sector have been dynamic for a very long time. They are faced with uncertainty and new challenges every academic year. However, the 2020-2021 academic year has seen challenges like none other. In India, the lives of about 253 million students were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic (KPMG, 2020).
The months of March & April every year marks the end of the academic year in most Indian schools. While schools were gearing up to end an academic year, the world was just beginning to understand the spread of the virus. To curb the spread of the virus, schools all over the country were suddenly closed in March. This abrupt lockdown brought with it a wave of uncertainty, cancellation of final exams, and academic and emotional challenges for students, educators, and leaders of schools. This unanticipated circumstance called for quick, difficult, creative and compassionate decisions by school leaders. Ms. Suman Bolar, the school administrator at Innisfree House School (IHS), Bangalore and Ms. Indira Jayakrishnan, principal of National Academy For Learning (NAFL), Bangalore shared their insightful experiences of these challenging times.
Struggle, Juggle, and Mettle
Managing the ambiguity, academic, technological, social-emotional,and safety needs of all stakeholders were challenging for schools. A big challenge was the sudden dependence on technology for fulfilling all these needs. Everything from online classes to staff meetings to inter-school events required technology and a paradigm shift in education delivery. Instead of the students coming to school, the school had to go to each of the student’s diverse families: caregivers, students, and staff with varied comfort with technology and availability of resources.
The pandemic also brought with it difficult financial decisions, balancing schools’ needs with parents’ and staff’s monetary difficulties. Even if these problems were solved, there was the question of how to keep students and teachers who have been in physical classrooms all their lives engaged and focused during online classes?
Juggling all these factors at a time of riding on a wave of unpredictability was initially a struggle. However, NAFL and IHS school leaders took steps that helped them overcome these challenges to ensure continuous, holistic learning for their students. The schools also understood very early the importance of emotional and mental health on learning, especially during these uncertain times. To ensure the wellbeing of staff and students, the management at these schools also ensured there was a team of wellness experts including counselors, pediatricians, and highly experienced educators addressing concerns of parents, staff, and students regularly. Ms. Suman Bolar eloquently states,
I think the single most important thing we did was identify a goal. In our case, that was ensuring learning continuity, emotional wellbeing, and safety for our students. Once that goal was clear, we simply made up our minds that we would achieve it, and did whatever was needed to get there. From putting together a comprehensive training program for staff and reaching out to staff members at all levels to ensure that they were coping and doing ok, to deciding to be fair and stay true to our moral compass when it came to financial decisions, the two most important things were transparency and keeping the lines of communication open—internally, amongst staff members as well as with parents and students.
Lessons from These Schools to Increase Resiliency
Be Creative, Accepting, and Flexible. The pandemic reminded us that change is the only constant and that life can change very suddenly. Ms. Indira Jayakrishnan believes “Being creative, responsive and flexible is key to managing a successful online schooling system; monitoring the team constantly is crucial, too.” This creativity and flexibility is required at every step from curriculum development and delivery to assessment of learning in students. Innovative ways to help people connect while managing online fatigue was another crucial factor that requires flexible and creative thinking.
Build a culture of trust and support. The constant uncertainty of the pandemic can be draining and exhausting. Getting through these hard times can be easier when we know we are not alone. Maintaining an open line of communication between caregivers, students, and staff can help build a circle of trust. Schools holding virtual assemblies and celebrations is another way of spreading joy and feeling of togetherness.
Practice Empathy. Being understood and understanding others not only helps us connect but can also help enhance learning, increase academic achievement, engagement, and help build positive relationships (Jones et al., 2018).
As Ms. Suman Bolar beautifully explains
Learning and teaching are more about connection than correction. This holds especially true during times of distress. To my mind, building a sense of connection and trust within the school community can make a huge difference to how you pull together to resolve challenges big or small. The pandemic taught us (the school) that you can achieve the seemingly impossible, as long as you work as a team… and building that team spirit requires you to genuinely care about the wellbeing of the community and empathize with one another.
This academic year hasn’t been easy at all, schools all over the world that help billions of people learn have learned many lessons of their own. They have been faced with innumerable challenges and have shown unimaginable resilience. Let’s continue to keep growing, teaching and learning creatively, mindfully, kindly, passionately and most importantly TOGETHER!
Innisfree House School (n.d.)
Jones, S., Weissbourd, R., Bouffard, S., Kahn,J., & Anderson , T. (2018). How to Build Empathy and Strengthen Your School Community. Harvard Graduate School of Education.
KPMG. (2020). School Education Response to COVID-19
National Academy for Learning (NAFL). (n.d.).
Ramamoorthy, S. (2020). Teaching in the time of COVID-19