Leading Online: The View From Hong Kong
Following news of a health outbreak in Hubei province, classes in Hong Kong were suspended from 3rd February as a precautionary measure. Since then, school teams have worked hard to learn fast, with communities now engaging almost exclusively online. Six weeks into an extended period of physical disconnection, I am now able to reflect upon the challenges we have faced with the aim of supporting others to prepare well. I do so in full acknowledgement that we too have stumbled at times in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenge - but we continue to rise and learn so much as we do.
A personal lens
Fear and anxiety are contagious. The immediate risk to health presented by Covid-19 has been extremely well documented, the impact upon wider wellbeing connected to decreased social mobility, far less so.
With the media circus on full parade, responses observed are often heightened, shaped by the view offered by a distinctly personal lens. With movement across the region restricted, many parents in Hong Kong face immense personal pressure while they attempt to juggle work and school from home. This is a particularly intense undertaking here in Hong Kong, where the average size of an apartment is just shy of 650 square feet. If faced with the prospect of suspension, it is highly likely that you will be acting in support of an increasingly vulnerable community.
Planning for response
I was once advised to move more slowly in times of crisis. Steady and conscious movement (both physical and emotional) provides space to engage deeply. With personal contact highly limited, written messages are easily misconstrued - the risk of unintentional upset is exceedingly high. Measure your words with care, draw upon your extended network for guidance and bury your pride.
Those fronting communication will need support. A trusted campus-based response team will support consistency and the conscious generation calm and positive messages. Initial guidance in Hong Kong centred around the promotion of sensible health-related precaution and the advantages of maintaining personal (often timetabled) routine.
High risk groups
While the suspension of usual school services will have a considerable impact on every member of your community, some will be disproportionately disadvantaged (doubly). Consider the unique pressures placed upon students facing disruption to their examination schedule, those current receiving additional academic support and anyone identified within your safeguarding register – consider parents under financial pressure and staff members with young children. Identification will support the prioritisation of care, services and support.
An initial review of school operation should begin with an assessment of the campus itself.
Minimising the number of points of entry and the volume of spaces in active use will allow you to best control the flow of movement (cleaning teams will thank you for this) – selected doors can be pinned back to limit handrail contact. The purchase of basic resources will also need attention: face masks, hand gel, cleaning fluid and electronic thermometers top the list. Colleagues working within a fee-paying environment should keep a close eye on the financial position of the school – cash is king when it comes to planning for the short and medium term considering the risk of interruption to otherwise routine payments.
Travel declaration forms allow you to monitor regional and international movement. The application of self-imposed periods of quarantine will need to be staggered according to the proximity of reported contact – the SARs outbreak in 2003 taught us about the increased risk of viral spread within high-density housing.
Centralised control of the attendance of students in Hong Kong has been countered by a relatively flexible approach towards employees. While many schools here have opted to close their doors for the duration, we have remained open to staff throughout. It was a critical decision, but the opportunity to connect regularly with colleagues has proven to be a powerful antidote to rising claustrophobia. Application of reasonably flexible working routines have been complemented by fixed periods of attendance designed to reconnect and reinvigorate staff teams as they work to perpetually innovate online.
The digital classroom
While most schools are likely to subscribe to a digital learning platform of one form or another, very few will have considered the broader functionality required to support a full school day (or week, or term). With a huge variety available, often at negligible cost, prioritise intuitive access and secure control.
The preparation of online learning materials is immensely time consuming. Teachers, students and parents (in the new role of direct consumer) will need immediate guidance (on both the platform and the new rules of engagement) and ongoing points of reference.
Novelty fades fast (it lasted for about three days here) – pace yourself. Timeline the steady introduction of new initiatives. Not only will this allow you to periodically reinvigorate the experiences of students, but to support staff ahead of eventual delivery. Calls for continued innovation are more comfortably moderated when you have ideas in the bank.
Variety has driven greatest success: pre-recorded content is particularly effective for anyone who might benefit from repetition – individual pastoral calls allow us to retain a good measure of wider wellbeing – interactive tasks can support learning-focussed connection. Live broadcast has its place too, but remains relatively one dimensional - as anyone who has joined a digital conference call can attest to, interaction (and inadvertent interruption) is almost impossible to manage.
While very few of us would have volunteered for the undertaking, the period of suspension will act, no doubt, to galvanise our community. I believe that we will benefit from a number of residual advantages - it is quite clear to me that:
- Invention has been inspired by perceptions of constraint.
- Online engagements have upskilled all members of the school community – we are better learners as a result of our digital exploits.
- Parents have been able to act as creators of ever-improved learning engagements given their increasingly nuanced understanding of the work undertaken by the academic team.
Challenging times often bring a community together. The period of extended suspension in Hong Kong has been as invigorating as it has been exhausting – when the dust settles, we will emerge stronger and more united. Only the silver linings will remain.[ITL]
Ben Keeling, @ben_keeling, Hong Kong, March 2020