The first classes in Term 1 of 2020 started like any other for Wesley College – full of optimistic students budding with excitement of a new year of learning and adventures. What would unfold would not only put the students’ resilience to the test, but the whole institution.
As a multi-campus school in Melbourne, Wesley College operates a boarding school, day school, studio school for Indigenous students, three outdoor education sites as well as residential sites – all of which would have to be streamlined to deal with the pandemic. Managing all these facilities during a crisis was never going to be easy.
“Straddling the diverse needs of our domestic, international and Indigenous students, their parents, communities and teaching staff during times of great uncertainty, and across these vast geographies, has been a significant challenge,” says Mr Evans.
Largely thanks to their thorough preparation and strategic infrastructure, the prestigious Melbourne school has been able to navigate the crisis swiftly and with decorum.
“The world has changed at a pace and scale that I would not have thought possible only a few months ago. The COVID-19 virus and its associated social and economic impact will leave behind a different world. This also means a different world and way of working for schools.”
During February, as reports of the Coronavirus began to swell and dominate the media cycle, classes operated as usual, but behind the scenes, Wesley began preparing for unprecedented events.
“Our journey to online learning happened at a pace that previously I would not have thought possible. While the College is fortunate to have a robust IT infrastructure in place, we did have to focus on an accelerated rollout of software.”
By mid-March, the Victorian school system had been placed under enormous pressure to act swiftly and prepare for an unprecedented pandemic as many private schools already decided to shut their doors.
We have also learned to be very clear about our priorities. As a school community, our number one priority is our students. This clear priority guides our decision-making during this crisis.
“In the last week of Term 1 we trialled a simplified version of remote learning which consisted of students undertaking activities via our existing learning management platform, SchoolBox.”
By the end of the final week of Term 1, it became clear that COVID-19 would force Wesley to protect students, their families and staff by implementing a full program of remote learning beginning from the start of Term 2 for all year levels. In order for this to happen, Mr Evans explains the College realised it would have to roll out new digital platforms that students, teachers and parents would have to learn.
“Over the holiday period we rolled out Microsoft Teams - for Junior, Middle and Senior School students and Seesaw for Junior School students. These two new platforms, in conjunction with SchoolBox, have enabled us to deliver a blend of synchronous (live discussions) and asynchronous (pre-recorded content and self-paced) for online learning.”
The learning curve
Like any school in Victoria, Wesley’s teaching staff can boast extensive experience in the classroom and a multitude of successes with education, but very few had experience when it came to teaching online.
“Teaching is one profession where ‘working from home’ is not a common occurrence," said Mr Evans
This would mean it would be the teachers who would have to go back to school.
“Our teachers worked hard over the term break to prepare for remote learning and have shown great commitment to this new way of teaching. More than 500 teachers attended professional development sessions during their holidays... The professionalism, creativity and sheer dedication of our teaching and support staff have ensured the transition went smoothly."
As the second Term began and classes resumed online, the learning curve presented itself to the students. Though middle-school and high-school students are likely to have more experience with online communication than any demographic, adapting to a new way of learning proved to be a challenge.
“As our Year 12s have told us, the beginning was difficult and the uncertainty around the exam schedule was stressful, but by the second week of remote learning, they found the technology convenient and were grateful for the support of their teachers and the ability to continue their studies.”
While the students and staff had adapted to their new environments, many parents who have also been forced to work from home have needed to split their attention from their own work, to also acting as secondary educators and supervisors.
“Parents of our Junior School students have necessarily been more hands on in a remote setting, to help provide guidance and ensure their children are adhering to regular breaks and movement. We also engaged parents with the rollout of Seesaw to ensure they understood how to log on and use the software and that they had the appropriate Wesley iPads to effectively use the platform.
For parents of older students, we have encouraged them to be involved in specific activities, and to discuss with their children concepts that have been taught.”
Minding their business
While Wesley College’s focus is on the education of its students, the prolific private school is also a business like any other which requires steadfast management and leadership.
“My experience as a leader at this unprecedented time is not unique. I am sure I’m not alone in feeling the pressure of making decisions in dynamic and rapidly evolving circumstances. The experience of navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, and the need to respond at speed, has highlighted to me the complexity of our multi-campus College.”
As COVID-19 swiftly spread throughout the globe, no business had fully anticipated such a large-scale and disruptive crisis taking place in 2020. Thanks to much foresight and planning, Mr Evans describes how the College leadership team leveraged their critical incident structures and processes to respond to the evolving pandemic and adopt an online-learning model.
“The College Executive, an established leadership team with clear oversight of every area of the College, introduced new College-wide protocols and ensured consistency in the delivery of remote learning and parent communications across each of the campuses,” he said.
“The culture at Wesley, which is one of innovation and collaboration, allowed for all parts of the organisation to work together effectively while working remotely.”
While Wesley’s infrastructure and executive models allowed the business to adapt to the crisis, it was the wider community that bolstered Wesley’s plans.
“One of the most positive things to have come out of this crisis is the strong sense of community. I’ve seen our students offering support to one another and showing real resilience, and at a community level, our parents, staff and past students have really banded together in support of one another.”
Back to class
As state and federal governments begin relaxing restrictions and revising protocols for social distancing, our school systems are preparing to return to class. Though many are eager to reopen the classroom, Wesley is proceeding with caution.
“Ours will be a phased approach to onsite learning, with additional policies and protocols to protect the health and wellbeing of our staff and students on campus,” says Mr Evans.
Though schools will resume a ‘traditional’ learning environment, the COVID-19 restrictions will have a lasting impact for Wesley and the future of teaching.
“Our students and staff will return to our campuses in May and June, in line with Government advice that it is safe to do so.
When onsite learning resumes, I am sure that teachers and general staff will continue to see the benefits of software such as Microsoft teams to collaborate with colleagues across our Melbourne campuses and sites across the country.”
The new school
Though Wesley College has seen a success in students learning online, in the view of Mr. Evans, nothing is better than the tangible classroom.
“Remote learning, while a viable option during a major crisis, is not a long-term approach for Wesley. Schools are all about relationships. Students miss the face-to-face interactions and personal connections with their friends and teachers, as well as co-curricular programs.”
Even though Wesley will resume a ‘traditional’ format of teaching in the future, the COVID-19 pandemic will have a lasting impact on the way classes are taught and revealed new ways of learning.
“This crisis has meant we have had the opportunity to examine how technology and learning can intersect and provide full-scale collaborative learning experiences for students. Teaching and learning will still depend on the same fundamental principles of relationships, fostering student agency and providing a productive learning environment.
The transition to remote learning has been a great opportunity for staff professional development, particularly in upskilling their technical capabilities.”