A year in the life of a school

Week 12: ChristMASK Is Coming!

In the twelfth of an ongoing series of blogs for the 2021-2022 academic year, Executive Headteacher Max Kelly captures his week working in primary schools in the Isle of Man. As the year goes on he hopes his blogs will paint a picture of a “Year In The Life Of A School”….

Monday 29th November

Well the week gets off to a flyer. The Isle of Man’s Chief Minister addressed the Manx nation last night and announced a tightening of restrictions / mitigation’s for our Island in response to the emergence of the Omicron C19 variant. There are implications for schools and school leaders, and a Sunday evening message from the Department of Education, Sport and Culture calls all of the IOM’s headteachers to a virtual Teams meeting in the morning.

And so my first job of the day is to dial in to the meeting and hear what is said. The DESC CEO leads the meeting but we are joined on the call by the Isle of Man’s Minister for Education, Julie Edge MHK.

The main talking points are around Government’s language for face-coverings in schools which is described as ‘expected.’ There is also clarification that events can still go ahead – the run-up to Christmas is an event heavy period in schools! – but advice given that schools should review mitigation’s, risk assess and monitor. I know this is going to cause anxieties amongst my pupils, staff and school community – I feel for them all, and know that they’ll be looking to me for strong and decisive leadership… always difficult to give when one feels so anxious and uncertain themselves.

I call a Federation-wide staff meeting for 12.30 for everyone from both schools, and run it over Teams. I update everyone on the info from the headteacher briefing and explain that I’ll be reviewing our planned calendar of events and getting some updated risk-assessments drawn up pronto. I also say that if parents ask, our line is we’ll be publishing an update on Wednesday: this buys us some time and will show parents that we’re thinking everything through carefully which I hope will be reassuring.

I receive an email from the NEU rep for the IOM. It says she ‘popped in’ at lunchtime to meet the teachers and ‘generally say hi’ but she was disappointed that no one was available. The email continues that she ‘is concerned to note that management is calling meetings during lunch times and this will be affecting staff well-being.’ How bloody rude. This person knows absolutely nothing about me or my school. The tone of the email was incredibly off. I knock out a reply pointing out she’d invited herself, neither of her two members knew she was coming (NEU is the smallest union in the IOM, most are NASUWT followed by NAHT / NAHT Edge) and that if she does ever come to my school it will never constitute an inspection, and unless one of her members approaches her for something or other, she can keep her opinions to herself about how I run my school. I hit send.

Spend the afternoon looking at the upcoming Christmas Fairs and thinking through a risk assessment. A challenge everywhere really – Santa in a mask? Grottos still ok? Can we move the fair outside? Do we try to limit numbers? The list goes on. All I know is that Omicron has sent an unwanted test at the end of a very long year and I’m tired. I know everyone else is too, so I paint back on the smile and head outside to wave everyone home.

Tuesday 30th November

After the busyness of yesterday in responding to the C19 mitigation changes, today is a chance to catch up with more routine matters. After a couple of hours spent in Laxey School I’m off to the swimming pool to teach my group with Dhoon School. As if I didn’t already know, I get a vivid reminder of how winter illnesses and cases of C19 are affecting the school: I only have one child in my group today, the rest are all absent through illness.

From Ramsey Swimming Pool I head back into Dhoon for an hour before driving on to Laxey School for a meeting with a prospective candidate who is interested in the 0.4FTE vacancy I’m currently advertising. We have a good professional discussion and I give the grand tour of the school.

Next up is a virtual meeting with some of my local NAHT colleagues for a quick update on last week’s pay negotiations. I take advantage of an earlier than usual finish and head into town to buy a new pair of shoes. The weather has been so so wet the last couple of days, and the bottom of my shoe literally peeled off at lunchtime when I came in off the playground. I’ve survived with sellotape but clearly need to get this sorted for the morning.

Wednesday 1st December

I put the finishing touches to the risk assessments and mitigation plans for the upcoming Christmas Fairs and Christmas Productions. I decide to distill some of the key messages into user-friendly graphics which can be shared on our social media channels to promote our safety measures in a calm and reassuring way for the parent community. It won’t be straightforward though: since the Monday lunchtime staff briefing I’ve been approached by a variety of staff who have all expressed their views, and their fears, about the Omicron variant and the measures we should take. The views have ranged between masks for everyone, enforcing social distancing, restricting mixing, through to the other end of the spectrum of no need to wear masks, keep everything normal for the children. I’ve also received various emails and letters from parents in the wake of the Chief Minister’s Sunday evening address: some parents have decided to take their children out of school to home-school in protest of staff wearing face-coverings, other parents have asked for Christmas to be cancelled because it is ‘no longer safe’. One thing is for sure, it is absolutely obvious now that whatever I do in terms of mitigations, and whatever decisions I make in terms of Christmas Fairs and Christmas Productions, the outcome won’t be universally popular. As a leader who has always striven to build consensus and take everyone with him, the knowledge that these next few days are going to impossible to face without some people not in agreement – or in total opposition – is somewhat daunting. I take as much comfort as I can in the truth that I’m only human and I’m trying my best, just like everyone else.

Thursday 2nd December

The social media graphics are ready, the risk assessments and mitigation plans are published to the respective school websites, and I’ve briefed my senior staff on the plan. I send out a comms via Teams Chat to the entire staff team across both schools inviting them to a virtual briefing at lunchtime where I will go through the documents and outline how we will proceed with Christmas in light of the emergence of Omicron and the Chief Minister’s statement.

The additional C19 work has inevitably meant that I’ve fallen behind on some emails and admin, so I begin the day working from home and I’m able to get myself back on track without any distractions.

At 12.30 I log into Teams and dial into the staff briefing. I explain that I’ve been offered a range of staff views over the week, as well as parental concerns, and that all of this has been taken into account. Everything has been balanced against the Government’s line that ‘face-coverings are expected to be worn by adults’ in education settings and that events need not be cancelled but properly risk assessed with a mitigation plan.

I think the staff team are largely supportive and onboard with what is said: the Christmas Fairs will go ahead, but we’ll encourage families to restrict their own numbers. Face-coverings will be worn by staff and visitors will be encouraged to do so too. We’ll even move the stalls outside so that fresh air is on our side too. The Christmas Productions will see numbers restricted to reduce the size of gatherings, face-coverings will be put out on chairs and the stage will be set back at least 2m from the audience. We’ll also film the productions and distribute copies free of charge to make up for having to restrict audience numbers.

After the briefing I upload the graphics to our social media channels and point parents in the direction of the full risk assessments on the school website.

A number of staff drop by the office to thank me for the briefing and say they understand how difficult this week has been. I make sure they know that I am so grateful for their support and continued hard work – this is all one big team effort.

The vast majority of comments on social media are positive with parents recognising the hard work the school has put in to ensure that everything can still go ahead. However, one parent, clearly opposed to face-coverings (an opinion which is their absolute right to hold) writes publicly that my decision to ask parents to wear a covering is ‘almost racist’. It’s an unjust attack on me, and I go home feeling pretty upset to be honest.

Friday 3rd December

Wake up to lots of supportive emails and social media replies from parents – the majority view is positive. The staff I speak to first thing also seem reassured and happy with the mitigation plans, so I feel a little more buoyed after last night’s wobble.

My Head of School and I have set up an observation of the candidate I saw earlier in the week. The candidate arrives and we ask her to teach in Y5. It’s only a short taster lesson, but I feel it is vital to have an opportunity to watch potential staff members work with children: how do they engage with learners, how do they interact? How relatable are they? All key questions in my book.

The JNC Union/Employer meeting is postponed – I must admit that on this occasion, this is welcome news because it has been such a busy and pressured week; any unexpected ‘time back’ is like Manna from heaven.

The day – and the week – ends with the Dhoon School Christmas Fair. Despite all of the challenges, it is festive, well attended and raises over £800 – which for a small rural school is a very decent effort. Santa even makes a Covid -Safe visit: no mask, but no up-close-and-personal in a grotto either. Santa walks around the Fair and distributed small token gifts from his sack to the children he sees. It works well.

The Dhoon School Christmas Fair raises an incredible £810.41

I receive some reports from parents that their children are positive via LFT and will be going for PCRs. I’ve noticed an upward trend in pupil C19 numbers this week, in both schools. It’s a concerning note on which to end the week.

I’ve also really struggled with my back today. It’s really sore. I test negative on LFT but decide to skip the Friday night beer and get an early night.

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