16 March 2020 was scheduled to be a day off for students and a day of professional development at school for teachers – with preschool and primary 1 teachers taking a literacy workshop and college teachers delving into topics of IT.
However, like something out of a science fiction novel, instead of the usual professional development protocol of gathering to learn and practice in dyads and groups – and then enjoying an Apéro together at day’s end – we found ourselves in the disorienting ambiance of digesting that any dreaded possible pandemic scenarios of the future had indeed arrived in the reality of today. In eerie silence, teachers shuffled outside to the sports field behind the school and spaced themselves the proper two meters apart. The principal’s message was clear: due to the threat of COVID-19 and as per the Swiss authorities, on-site school had been cancelled for an unknown duration, and effective immediately, our focus had to shift to organizing a distance learning program. Only through teamwork, community and a vast amount of effort would we be able to successfully push our curriculum forward for our nearly 600 students.
Not a minute was wasted. Adhering to new protocols, the school management drew up the framework of the new learning methodology while the teachers engaged in networking with their teams, upskilling in the ways of Office 365 and adjusting their plans to teach remotely.
Even though many obstacles had to be overcome, already the next day, teachers, students and their parents impressively managed to embark on what was to become the SIS schools worldwide trend for virtual distance learning in SIS Primary and Secondary sections. The transition meant dealing with issues such as: the availability of devices, including printers and scanners; issuance of passwords; safe and readily usable software; and, perhaps most crucially, producing a massive, schoolwide tutorial on the idiosyncrasies of our new virtual platform. Trouble-shooting would be ongoing in the weeks ahead.
In order to create a cohesive environment with only small deviations between classes, the SIS schools channeled the remote learning program largely through Office 365 Teams, with each class having its own profile and teachers following a centralized framework. Office 365 Teams features a wide array of options and provides an ideal platform for distance learning: teachers set up channels for each subject and transfer-files via OneDrive and OneNote; SharePoint allows for the sharing and distribution of important assignments; Sway, Forms and Class Notebook, are being employed liberally throughout the learning sequences. To the extent possible, teachers have endeavored to embrace a synchronous schedule based on the students’ familiar school day. As the program developed, more time was spent in live teaching encounters.
I am extremely proud of the SIS Basel faculty, and I am grateful to the parents and children who joined forces with us and cooperated despite the stress. With me writing this article one week before we return to classroom learning, there will be much to process and evaluate, and though we do not yet know what’s still ahead in terms of COVID-19, at least we do know that we have the capacity to adapt, find creative, workable and even excellent solutions, making the best of a challenging experience under pressure.
Article by Andrew Wulfers, Principal