My Virtual School – letters. 20.5.2020

20 May 2020. A letter from my mother-in-law this morning. She has written to us at least twice a week for as long as I have known her. And not just us. She writes constantly to all her friends, sadly fewer now as she has reached her 90s. Always meticulous in spelling and grammar in a clear copper-plate learnt in the 1930s. She writes about her day, small doings of the dog or family, how they are managing to source fresh food to be delivered, annoyance at a plane in the sky, fretting about getting flour to bake cakes to give away, tired of lockdown.

Letter-writing has had an unexpected revival among the young as well. A need to connect in a more permanent and meaningful medium than texts or screen-time. Maybe a sense that the outside world has been delivered in a physical form through the letterbox. And that somebody cared enough about you to spend time over that communication. I wonder how anyone gets hold of stamps.

My friend Richard’s birthday this morning and his wife posted a photo of his birthday cards. Neatly arranged on a tray, still in their envelopes, with a thoughtfully arranged letter-opener and bottle of antibacterial, household cleaner. Definitely a set-up for a crime novel. Our letters go through much the same process. They sit on the side for a a few hours after delivery, waiting for the virus to get bored and go off somewhere more exciting. The letterbox, inside and out, gets sprayed with a rather pleasant pink grapefruit scented household cleaner. I do resent the few bits of junk-mail which still get through, particularly on behalf of the poor postman.

A colleague had a letter published in the Daily Telegraph today. Another relic of the past and, again, a sense that time and thought has gone into this communication, rather than the knee-jerk responses fired out on social media without concern for the sensitivity of writer or reader. He writes about the growing inequality in schooling. He is right. We are managing to provide so much to the boys, but we are aware that so many children are disadvantaged by online learning – there is no spare computer, no private space, no reliable internet. The gap is widening.

Really good news. At last my nephew has made it home after weeks in isolation in a solitary cabin on a cruise ship in the Caribbean. One very happy family.

© Clare Sargent

My Virtual School – a boarding school, not a school with boarding. 19.5.2020

19 May 2020. A colleague sent me his response to my last post. A debate worth having. Here are his thoughts.

‘Like a lot of people, I’m rather enjoying some aspects of life in lockdown. My academic teaching seems to be going well – boys are making great progress, on the whole, although life can be tough if they are in the wrong time zone; or are at home alone because their single parent is still going out to work; or they are just not a particularly self-motivated boy and need the structures of daily life at Radley to help them keep on top of their workload. Still, I’m finished every day by 6.30pm at the latest, which is unheard of in more normal times.

I’m finding I have more time for living. I’m often guilty when I am physically at school of manufacturing work to fill the gaps – if I’m there, I feel I should be working. At home I’m more likely, if I have half an hour free, to go and do some gardening (finally, I’ve got on top of the weeds in the garden); chat to the children between their online school experiences; cook lunch; read a book. Yet I’m still managing to teach, including some entertaining individual music lessons across multiple timezones and in some surprising places.

But I am really worried about the education of our boys, even so. Dons are working hard, boys are progressing through their subject syllabuses; but that has only ever been part of what we do at Radley. The whole justification for the full boarding experience (what former Warden, Angus McPhail, called ‘a boarding school, not a school with boarding’) is that it provides time for the boys to do other things together. Sometimes this has even been quantified as 30% of a don’s commitment – whether that be sport, music, drama, clubs, or social activities like form evenings or Caledonian Society.

When I see colleagues finished for the day at 3.00pm, out for a walk with their families,  I am glad for them; but I worry about where that time has come from. Education is about much more than sitting in a classroom, physical or virtual; and boys are missing out on so much of that education at the moment. They can attend choir rehearsals, of a kind, and record individual parts for a choir piece in their lonely bedrooms, but they can’t sing together; they can learn notes and lines for the musical this November, but they can’t act together; they can do solo fitness efforts and even compete on Strava, but they can’t be a team; they can make paper planes and film them for a competition, but they can’t learn the real value of leadership out in a dark wood at midnight on a CCF Field Weekend.

Should we bring the boys back to Radley? Yes, there will be risks; but there are always risks. COVID-19 has been yet another reminder that humans are bad at assessing risk; we tend to underestimate risks which are familiar and which we feel we can control, like driving, and overestimate risks which are unfamiliar and out of our control, like flying in an airliner, even though the latter is many times safer. COVID-19 is the same; the government’s campaign message has been so successful it has left us scared of our own shadows.

Meanwhile, teachers are excoriated in the press because the teaching unions are asking for schools to be ‘completely safe’ before they reopen. They don’t represent me, and I’ve decided the time has come to quit my union when my subscription runs out, and go for legal insurance instead.

No school is ever completely safe. Life is not completely safe. In my time teaching at Radley, boys have been run over outside the school crossing the road from the bus, but we don’t ban them from travelling into Oxford, all the same. Boys are injured playing rugby under supervision, or kicking a football around on the pitches after prep.’

So many contradictions in our lives at the moment, and so many opinions and options. We may be locked down, but our minds and speech are still free.

© Clare Sargent

My Virtual School – picnics in the park. 17.5.2020

17 May 2020. As lock-down starts to be unlocked we have more freedoms to move around. Exercise is now unlimited and the rules on activities outside the home have been relaxed. Today the Abbey Meadows were full of people sitting. Just sitting on the grass. Most in small family groups – parents with young children and a dog. A few couples. A few clearly two friends who have met up for the first time in weeks. Sitting at least 2m apart. Happy just to sit. All quiet. Very little conversation. Just sitting in the sunshine, a blessed relief after the relentless need to keep moving with exercise. Fewer cyclists today. But a lot of the groups had arrived by bicycle. They were propped against trees or the park benches.

Every so often a new family arrived on the scene. Invariably father walking ahead, talking incessantly on his phone. Mother herding children and dog behind him. The family would choose a spot, maintaining an appropriate distance away from other groups and away from the path, and settle down among the knee-high buttercups. A study in Central Place Theory and Pre-Raphaelite paintings.

Many friends in teaching are becoming depressed and upset by the assault on them by the media. The role of the Unions in negotiating a safe physical return to school by pupils is being described as ‘squabbling.’ Teachers are branded cowards. Others are raising it to the level of class warfare – Eton won’t go back before September but the youngest primary children can be tossed to the virus like guinea-pigs on 1 June. And so on.

At school, the Geology Dept are teaching about fossil molluscs by means of Guylian chocolates; the Year 9s are all building pin-hole cameras from whatever is lying around at home, whilst the Year 10s have accessed a telescope in Liverpool via the internet and are photographing distant galaxies from their living room sofas. The Fifths (Year 11) whose GCSEs were due to start within a few weeks have an entirely new programme of learning and want to know ‘why isn’t all education like this?’

The rush to get every pupil back into the old way of school may throw away our one opportunity to rethink education.

© Clare Sargent

My Virtual School – making hay. 14.5.2020

14 May 2020. Farming never stops. In the field by Sugworth Lane the first shoots of the new crop are glowing green. Catching the sunlight in curving lines across the ground. Yesterday the hay was being cut in the fields next to Cheesers. So the dog on his lead along the footpath to keep him away from the tractor and mowers – and no chance of running through the long grass and flowers. A man and his small son were out photographing the arc of mown grass as it flew high into the air to land in the cart. An ancient sight mechanised.

Anger among teachers at suggestions in the media that schools are closed and teaching has stopped. A colleague posted his teaching for Wednesday this week:

Today, my easiest day in 9 days, I’ve taught a 90 min seminar on origins of Western Philosophy, a Year 9 poetry test lesson, a Year 12 Lear lesson, attended a seminar on Austen, written 38 reports, met my tutor group+dealt with several issues arising,+had a staff meeting. I’ve taught 90 minutes on postmodernism, 90 on the origins of the novel, + lessons on Miller, Shakespeare, +writing, +marked 15 essays with another 60+to mark. Since Tuesday. It’s lucky I, like other teachers, am ‘not working’ right now. Not sure I’d have the time to do my job.

Tonight, the Ferguson Singing Prize – both live-streamed and a highlights programme for those who don’t have 2 hours straight screen time. And let’s not forget another essential worker superhero of our school – the video unit team (mostly just Max!) constantly producing high quality output from zoom meetings or on site interviews. Vital parts of keeping the school in touch with its community.

That community donated more than 500 items to the Abingdon Food Bank last week, including supplies from the Catering Dept. Back in March the fresh produce that would not be used after all the holiday activities and lets were cancelled was sent to the Abingdon Fridge – good use being made of that facility by many around the town.

The sound of our walks has changed. In March the bare branches of the trees were knocking together with a constant crack and crash. Now all the leaves are unfurled and we walk to the sound of their rustling.

© Clare Sargent

My Virtual School – £3 for a cabbage. 12.5.2020

12 May 2020. A panic-striking email this morning: your network password expires today, reset your password to continue to access everything you need. Instructions on the helpdesk webpage. Instructions say I can only do this from the computer on my desk at work. Network password controls email, email controls zoom. Life is run on email. Sanity depends on zoom. Desktop computer is locked inside inaccessible building. Password expires TODAY. Briefly consider whether life could actually continue just via Twitter. Helpdesk Heroes to the rescue. Possibly the most essential workers the school has. Password reset by remote. And breathe.

Lock-down restrictions are easing. Longer journeys are allowed. And the housing market is restarting.  One friend (an estate agent) has suggested putting her own house on the market so that she can book her family in to view it. No other way to see said family but strangers can potentially be shown around the house. Those who have bought new homes can begin to arrange removals. A couple of visits to our new home to draw up lists of maintenance work before we move in. Small independent building trades are keen to get back to work but anxious how to do this. All we contact will only work in unoccupied houses. Good for us. Long chat about flooring with a carpenter. Electrician due out on Monday. Need to find a decorator. Then need to check when the curtain-maker we like will be back to work. What is very unclear is when we can get to shops to choose light fittings, paint colours, fabrics – online shopping doesn’t answer all questions.

Meeting our new neighbours in the small village. People call out hello from gardens. Some pop out of their houses to greet us across the street. One offers newspaper deliveries. Another invites us to a BBQ – ‘when all this is over.’

The gastro pub in the village is closed but has set up a take-away service – looks scrumptious. Also has a notice about the village shop. Good news. We didn’t think there was a village shop. No village shop in sight. Stop to ask two women sitting chatting in their respective front gardens. No village shop. Just a temporary one at the pub while the virus lasts. And not recommended – ‘all fancy breads and 50p for a carrot. They charge £3 for a cabbage!’ – my witty quip about getting serious with cabbage-cooking not received with approval.

The big debate is when schools will go back. Government has said 1 June for some primary years  – IF…. Horror on all fronts. NEU up in arms. The Union has been up in arms for weeks – first demanding that schools be closed, then demanding that teachers don’t teach online, and clearly out of contact with what is happening in the independent sector.  And a lot of teachers angry at the language of ‘closure’ – no schools are ‘closed.’ At our school, discussions on how to hold a parents’ meeting and for which years? A Virtual Open Day for prospective pupils happened a week or so ago. And one of the boys has challenged everyone to a lock-down photography competition. But it looks like we won’t be back until September and the next half of this term will be a long, hard slog.

© Clare Sargent

My Virtual School – the next stage. 10.5.2020

10 May 2020. Things are moving forward. An announcement by the Prime Minister this evening. Variously interpreted. Mostly bafflement. Are we out of lock-down? No. Stay home, stay safe. Can we go out? Yes. Now that the glorious summer weather has broken we can picnic in the park. But only in family or household groups. Not sure how we prove that? Carry a utility bill and/or DNA testing kit and/or marriage license/ birth certificate at all times? Exercise more. But don’t play team games except with your immediate family. Cricket for 3, anyone? Can we go to work? Yes, if you can’t work from home. No, if it is not safe to do so. Who decides? Reasonable you or your totally unreasonable boss? What are the penalties? And go to work without using public transport. Ideally walk or cycle. OK – just 25 miles in the rain …

But this news, whatever it is, has been welcomed by many of the small, self-employed businesses we deal with. Within minutes a flurry of Facebook messages. We can now get the dog walked, the plumbing fixed, the house deep-cleaned and celebrate it all with a magnificent cake. We can also exercise more than once a day. Not welcomed by one friend who flatly refuses to do any more exercising than she has been doing – what with the 5-10 km daily walks, the 2 hour zoom pilates, and the online high-impact aerobics. Just lucky she has such a large lounge and the children have left home.

Good news for us because now we might be able to find a decorator, carpenter, electrician who can come out to do essential maintenance on the house we have just bought. House buying is a fraught process at the best of times. COVID-19 and lock-down have not made it any less stressful. Unlike many, many others whose sales and purchases have fallen through, along with their mortgage offers, we exchanged contracts the week before lock-down. But in the weeks since we have watched the fall of the stock markets; the potential crash of the world economy; worried about banks failing; attempted to manage large mounts of money via telephone banking with bank staff working from home who haven’t read all the emails about pro-tem procedures; imagined our own difficulties in signing vital documents from possible ITU beds while on ventilators; imagined our vendor in lock-down for 12 weeks unable to move out; not entirely sure how she did move out; been told by our removers that they will not consider anything before mid-May, even June; watched everyone about us indulging in an orgy of DIY and gardening while we could do nothing. Completion day was definitely a limp rag day.

© Clare Sargent

My Virtual School – contrails. 9.5.2020

9 May 2020. The 75th anniversary of VE Day yesterday. Big rows today about street parties, socially distanced conga lines, breaking lock-down etc, etc. Various friends had afternoon tea-parties with the neighbourhood all sitting on their drives or in front gardens eating scones and jam, with bunting. One friend joined in with the nationwide bagpiping at 3pm, standing in his street in full highland kit. He appeared a few minutes later dressed in 18th century costume as the town crier – another nationwide initiative. Just around the corner from him, the standard bearer for the local British Legion, also properly attired for the occasion, performed the last post ceremony, lowering the banner to the ground in mourning during the two minutes silence, on his drive. Both of them filmed on phones and posted on  social media for the rest of us to share.

I like this kind of  sharing. Very comfortable. Apparently 52% of those recently polled have watched some form of religious service online – something for churches to think about seriously when this is all over.

At school, people stood where they were for the two minutes silence. One young family were at the War Memorial, reading the names for WW2. Odd not to do such a thing centrally.

School has now reached the exeat weekend. This usually coincides with the first May bank holiday but this year the bank holiday was moved nationally to Friday. So now for those of us who no longer know what day of the week it is we can take comfort that this week Friday was last Monday. So virtual school is on holiday for a few days – definitely taking a break from having no one there. After four weeks of online teaching, sport, music, drama, cocoa, cooking, reading challenges, concerts, quizzes, pastoral care, it’s going OK. Starting to utilise more advanced parts of Microsoft teams including break-out sessions for classes to work in small groups. And getting parents and Old Radleians to share in some of the challenges and activities.

The meadow grasses on the golf course are a purple haze, with bright spots of long-stemmed buttercups among them. Today I saw the first wild rose opening. And high above us an unfamiliar sight and sound – the contrail of a plane. Almost an assault upon the birdsong and the purity of the deep blue sky.

© Clare Sargent

My Virtual School – bunting. 7.5.2020

7 May 2020. Bunting is appearing on houses and across streets ready for the 75th anniversary of VE Day tomorrow. One garden wall near us has been decorated with bunting drawn in chalk for its entire length. Must have taken ages. At least a day – wasn’t there when we walked the dog past there two nights ago.

Tonight was another Thursday Clap for Carers at 8pm evening. Here a single bell tolls to signal the start and continues throughout until it is the last sound. Can’t work out where it is coming from. All the churches are locked and entry for any activity is banned. I have been reading an impassioned Twitter argument between various organists all separated from their organs and unable to practice. Quite a bit of civil unrest brewing among the organ grinding community. One or two threatening to do it anyway!

In our street people pop their heads out of their front doors to see who else is there; spend time chatting nonchalantly in case they looked eager; wave a bit, and then, by mutual agreement, clap as loudly as possible. No saucepans, fireworks, bagpipes or heavy metal performances. But certainly a moment of solidarity.

Listening to my father-in-law on the radio today for the VE Day celebrations. He spoke of D-Day. At 19 he commanded a flotilla of landing craft. As he guided his little boats into Utah Beach he heard a strange noise behind him. It was the full complement of crew and soldiers on an American battleship cheering them on. Next day, his was the first Royal Navy ship back into Plymouth harbour and the same noise greeted him. The people of Plymouth lined up along the docks and the shoreline – cheering. He choked in the telling – ‘that was the most emotional moment of the war.’

© Clare Sargent

My Virtual School – awakenings. 5.5.2020

5 May 2020. I won an online photography competition last week. The winner sets the next challenge so I spent a while trying to think of a topic for these times. ‘Hope’ was set a few weeks ago, so that was out. Trying to decide on something upbeat? something meaningful? something totally unrelated to anything that’s happening? something that might be interpreted as dark? I wish now that I had pinched another friend’s # ‘Love in the time of coronavirus’. But I didn’t. Settled on ‘awakenings’ because that was a general feeling in the air. At least it was a few days ago. And open to multiple interpretations.

All this week BBC Radio Stoke are running a series of interviews with my father-in-law. At 96 he is reminiscing about his experiences in WW2 as part of their VE Day celebrations. First as a young teenager in London in the Blitz – ‘we were just worried it would all be over before we got a chance to join in’. Then into the Royal Navy at 18, serving on minesweepers in the Firth of Forth – ‘better than a gap year.’ On to commanding landing craft on D-Day and then the push through Europe.

His first response when told he and my mother-in-law must stay in lock-down for 12 weeks to avoid COVID-19 was that it can’t be as bad as D-Day – ‘at least nobody is shooting you.’ The two of them have sourced food delivery companies and are managing to walk their dog. Three other friends in their 90s have set up house together and are planning to take part in a quiz night via zoom. All of them remember bombings, rationing, an uncertain future and the deaths of many friends and family when they were children and teenagers. My own father’s family was bombed out five times. I saw a piece online about all that children are suffering now in lock-down – all the fears, anxieties, unanswered questions, the disruption to schooling, not seeing friends, not playing outside… it went on and on and finished with the claim that they are the real heroes of our time for putting up with it all. Maybe that should be an awakening.

At school, the Geology Dept have gone viral on Twitter for a lesson about earthquakes using a beer glass. Really imaginative teaching. And the climbing roses have come into full bloom.

© Clare Sargent

My Virtual School – competitions. 3.5.2020

3 May 2020. The stags have been barking in the woods each night for a couple of weeks now. Scares the living daylights out of the dog. Afraid he might be mistaken for a willing doe. Tonight the deer could clearly see us, he was so close to the road. He stopped his mating call when we erupted from a side street with dog straining at the leash. Then started again, louder and more aggressive when it was clear we were not his competition.

All over the world there are reports of wildlife becoming less timid as there are fewer people around. We have had closer encounters than usual with muntjac and foxes on our walks. Two hedgehogs snuffling together near the roses. In Haifa the wild boar have been shepherding their piglets through the streets. Dolphins frolicking in the Bosphorus shipping lanes. And the mountain goats of Llandudno became celebrities a few weeks ago. Other animals are apparently missing people. An aquarium in Japan has been calling for video interactions for their pining eels, while a zoo in the US has been introducing land and water animals to each other – apparently dolphins and sloths get on really well.

At school we have our first virtual sports fixture – a triwizard rowing competition against Shiplake and Hampton over 3 days. Believe it involves quite a lot of running and very little water. Discussions about the physical return to school have been tackling the issue of sport – rugby is off limits, but cricket is past master of social distancing so may be our preferred sport if we are back in September.

The birdsong has been beautiful. Larks soaring above the empty golf course. I can’t help thinking that it’s wasted on the golfers.

© Clare Sargent