22 April 2020. Research today into the impact of previous epidemics on school life. A lengthy editorial in the school magazine from 1933 described the devastating effect of a particularly virulent flu: every boy’s temperature taken every morning, cessation of cold baths, wooden extension built onto the Infirmary. And on the letters page a plea for universal inoculations well before the event. In contrast, the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic was glossed over in a brief note: ‘Last term, owing to the ravages of Spanish ‘flu’ which left very few of us untouched, Social Fours and the OTC Camp had to be cancelled, much to our universal disappointment.’ So much for a pandemic which killed more globally than WW1 and was marked by its impact on those in their twenties and thirties as opposed to the very young and very old who more often suffer from coronaviruses. Not only was it glossed over, but actively hidden from the records – no mention of it in any obituary, even for a boy aged 17 who must have died whilst still at the school.
The effect of our very own pandemic is radically changing school life, although both the Boat Club (1918’s Social Fours) and the CCF (1918’s OTC Camp) are running virtual programmes. Today the military were included in the government’s daily briefing, actively supporting the NHS and due to facilitate the roll-out of COVID-19 testing nationally. And reports from the boys do seem to indicate that they too are disappointed by things which are cancelled.
Zoom chats and real life encounters give a flavour of the virtual classroom. One colleague – ‘it’s all the bad bits about teaching, with none of the good bits,’ Lots of advice about screen time, posture, taking a break, how to manage when the wifi drops out. Another colleague described how his connection failed half-way through a lesson, but since they are all recorded for boys in different time zones later on he could pick up the conversations between the class about whether he was really there and what to do about it. And a couple of colleagues who reminded me that they live alone so at the end of each lesson or day’s teaching, after all that emotional drain, there is a massive sense of deflation, no one to help dispel the concentration of the day. Just making the technology work, having it all prepared, links in place, class assembled, adds enormously to the work.
Today news is beginning to trickle in of the real effects of the virus on families in the school community. Pastoral care for the bereaved needs to be remembered in every lesson. It is very much the world of 1918.
This is my personal Mass Observation blog. I invite anyone, particularly members of Radley College community, to join in to create a group record of this important period in our history as we face the COVID-19 pandemic.
© Clare Sargent