Finding a new normal

Education | Cara Chen 25 Feb 2020

Wake up at 7.30am and get ready quickly, then climb back in bed to start the day's lessons, perhaps after a nice breakfast.

That might have been a typical start to the day for students studying at schools under the English Schools Foundation, until recently when a new rule was announced: no pajamas allowed in class.

As the SAR faces the Covid-19 outbreak, all schools have been shut since the Lunar New Year holiday and will continue to be until at least March 16.

The ESF, which operates 22 international schools and has about 17,800 students in total, started to run live-streamed online lessons shortly after the holiday ended.

Now that the schools have made adjustments to online learning arrangements for students in different year groups, ensuring teachers and students are as efficient and productive as they are on a regular school day, learning seems to be gradually returning to normal.

At the ESF Hillside International Kindergarten, teachers put together a Google slide deck that covers content from math and Chinese to well-being, music and movement.

"Children are so young that they need support to access the learning from a parent or helper in some cases," said acting head Audrey Tang.

Explanations are provided alongside the content to help supporting adults deliver the activities. Families are encouraged to work through the learning engagements at their own pace and are then invited to share their learning at home via a shared album, where teachers can comment and reflect with the children.

At the ESF Discovery College, primary students begin their days with a Google meeting where they report and share their learning to teachers and ask questions, and end their days the same way - by reporting their achievements and preparing for the next day. The approach was designed to ensure students are on the timeline and reduce the problems caused by the fact that some parents cannot be around for supervision.

"Planning an approach that fits every situation perfectly is not possible, but we have taken the time to listen to parents and understand the situations our various students have," said Discovery College principal James Smith.

The schools have run surveys to evaluate the teaching approaches and called some parents for more detailed thoughts, while the schools' senior leaders regularly visit the lessons to understand how things are working.

Provisions for secondary students, who can study independently, are linked closely with the regular school timetable. Some teachers also found that the majority of the curriculum can be adapted for online learning, including laboratory classes. For example, a secondary school science teacher at Discovery College conducted a physics experiment using equipment in her kitchen.

Extension activities are set as part of students' work to encourage students to stay active and healthy, as students tend to spend a long time in front of the screen to do eLearning.

The Discovery College PE department has set for students a series of physical challenges featuring yoga, dance, and high-intensity training, with video clips to guide students in how to complete each activity.

The schools' provisions to maintain the normal school day include ensuring students' attendance via video conferences, requiring submissions of learning evidence and follow-up phone calls with parents. In some schools, students are told to dress properly for live-streamed lessons as a respect for the learning environment.

However, certain problems still remain.

Offering only online learning may not be enough for graduating classes, as assessments for the International Baccalaureate Diploma cannot be postponed.

Despite concerns about the increased infection risks of the coronavirus, the education bureau has allowed international schools to arrange face-to-face sessions on campus for some students, as international exams, such as the IB exams, are not under the bureau's control like the DSE.

The ESF, which runs five secondary schools, said that Year 11 and 13 pupils who were required to complete time-sensitive internal assessments might return to campus before March 16, but with group sizes kept to a minimum.

At the Canadian International School of Hong Kong, staff members were told via email to be present on campus daily for teaching the graduating class in person starting March 2.

"We are liaising with the IB Organisation to ensure they have a full understanding of the situation, and to advocate for the decisions they will need to make to ensure students from our school and across Hong Kong are supported in their final course outcomes and that any impact of the challenges of this difficult time is mitigated successfully," said Smith.

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