Virtual School

My Virtual School – forest bathing. 23.4.2020

23 April 2020. Earth Day yesterday. Its 50th anniversary. A reminder that climate change, global warming, mass extinctions are not just recent concerns but have been on the agenda for two generations already. A research request today about White’s Plantation and its possible link to Capability Brown at Radley reminded me that his work on the landscape was rediscovered as part of growing concern over increasing urbanisation in the 1930s. We’ve been fighting this battle for a long time now.

Twitter was filled with posts from museums and art galleries and from the National Trust and Woodland Trust showcasing woodlands in art – places people can’t get to during lock-down. And advocating the Japanese idea of ‘forest bathing’, simply walking among trees to enhance well-being. Mental well-being is becoming the focus of NHS messages on the television as the impact of lock-down begins to erode mental health. Boredom, family friction, fear and loneliness are taking their toll.

Walking the dog this morning I met a very old lady, well into her 80s. She was taking her hour’s exercise walking in the bluebell wood. But she really needed someone to talk to. Would have loved to fuss the dog as well, but knew she must not. Her children and grandchildren, even two great grandchildren, are in New Zealand. She was widowed in November. So all this time she has been alone, mourning. She is also losing her sight and can’t drive to the hospital or to buy food. We talked about community help, where to get fresh vegetables, bread and milk. She said how she was sharing purchases with her neighbour. Talked about the comradeship she experiences in the village. But overall, that terrible loneliness.

I walked in the large wood with the dog. Flowers everywhere – lush purple carpets of bluebells, with forget-me-nots, wild garlic, celandines, anemones, red and white campions. And above us the trees in flower as well – white blossoms on the hawthorns, crab-apples, cherries, and the candles on chestnuts. Bird song all around. Truly a place for well-being. Such a pity that so many cannot get out to experience a glorious spring.

© Clare Sargent

My Virtual School – virtual teaching. 22.4.2020

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.

© Clare Sargent

My Virtual School – masks. 21.4.2020

21 April 2020. Much discussion in the news about whether we should all wear masks when we leave the house. Husband believes they will be very useful when we have to rob a bank or Post Office: easier get-aways if everyone is wearing a mask, not just the villains.

No idea where we would get them. Ordering via Amazon seems irresponsible – danger to delivery drivers, unnecessary travel, non-essential purchasing etc. Plus, surely medical-quality masks should be reserved for those who actually need them – not made available for every Tom, Dick and Harriet to gobble up the limited world supply just to go to the supermarket? Also some doubt about how useful they would be. Certainly when I’ve been in the queue at Waitrose it is the people in masks who shuffle up too close, believing themselves protected. It does need a new message: wear a mask to prevent yourself infecting others, rather than wear a mask to prevent others infecting you.

Brother in France is worried about how to make his own when they become mandatory there. In the complete absence of needles, thread and old rags he is hoping he can achieve something passable with kitchen roll and duct tape. I’ve been sent several DIY youtube vids – the handkerchief (pure cotton, white) + rubber band method, the pristine, white cotton sports sock + aloe-coated tissue method – both of which seemed to involve a lot of shopping. Not sure whether any old holey sock destined for the bin will do. And a lot of debate about washing them, re-using them, changing them etc. General agreement is they must survive a 60 degree wash (so no hope for bro). I just wish cyclists (I guess it’s them) would stop dropping them in the gutter for the dog to think he should bring them home.

The price of US oil has gone negative. Ambivalent news. On the one hand, very glad for the climate change issue. On the other hand, keeping a close eye on the economy. The price of Brent Crude in Europe not so bad. And Admiral is offering £25 refund on car insurance because no one is driving or making claims. Pity I’m not with Admiral.

I found the first reference to innoculations at Radley Hall in the accounts of Sir William Stonhouse in the 1770s. News today that a research unit in Oxford may be close to finding a vaccine. College Oak has witnessed all this in its 400+ year history. Today all its leaves were unfurled, palest green-gold, ready for another summer.

© Clare Sargent

My Virtual School – hospital visit. 20.4.2020

20 April 2020. A big day today. A day we have agonised over, debated, discussed, researched. And in the end just a damp squib. Routine. Except that it was all more efficient and far less stressful than usual.

Husband had an appointment for a CT-scan at the Churchill Hospital. It has been booked for months at the John Radcliffe, but two weeks ago was moved from the JR to the Churchill. A talk during the broadcast Radley Chapel service last week from an OR consultant based there reassured us, so we decided he had to go ahead with the appointment.

First off, discussion about when to set out from home for an appointment before 9.30am. In normal times we would leave before 7am from Faringdon. It’s a 25 minutes drive to Oxford outside of rush hour. But during rush hour – nose to tail traffic, the worse part actually trying to get into the hospital grounds. And then there’s the extra 20 minutes trying to park once we’ve made it within sight of the carpark. Decided on 8.15 – extraordinary times deserve extraordinary plans. No traffic worth the name in Oxford today. He arrived 45 minutes early. Carpark empty.

No one is allowed to accompany a patient into the hospital (apart from a few very special cases). So the building seemed empty. Most staff wearing masks. Just three other patients in the waiting room. One commented that last time he was there the place was packed – clearly none of those previous patients had any need to be there at all. Husband pointed out that those other patients have all had their treatments put on hold, and now had to wait a long time. The group in the waiting room today are the ones who can’t wait.

He didn’t sit down in the waiting room, and when he arrived home it was straight into the shower, all clothes into the washing machine, and out to clean the car seat, steering wheel, gear lever. Not routine at all in the end.

The hawthorn is coming into flower in the hedgerows. A friend posted video of the swallows arriving over her home in Wales. We went looking for them along the Thames this afternoon. None so far, but they will be here soon. And tonight, we went to look for Elon Musk’s starchain of satellites lined up across the sky. Not sure how I feel about a man who can put himself between us and the constellations.

© Clare Sargent

My Virtual School – cricket season. 18.4.2020

18 April 2020. The first day of the new cricket season at school. Torrential rain overnight and this morning. The first rain for at least three weeks. How did it know?

Walking past the immaculate and empty pitches today, each wicket carefully protected. Eerily waiting for a season that still may not happen. It may. But the likelihood is that it won’t.

And little bits of activity which begin to look more and more like a siege mentality. Friends and colleagues who have bought laying chickens, a couple who have splashed out on pigs. Beginning to worry about various pet rabbits. Meanwhile, a second trip in a week to Waitrose for essentials – coffee ran out this morning at home. But the only shortage in the shop is still just flour; everything else available, even if some of it still limited in the quantity each shopper can buy.

The rain made some of the footpaths slippery with mud. Over the last few weeks people have been exploring their local area and discovering paths that only the dog-walkers know about. Each path has been getting clearer, more beaten and wider as people step aside to avoid each other, sadly crushing down the plants as they do so. The other day the dog and I waited for at least 15 minutes over our hour’s walk as families with small children plodded by on paths where we have seen no one in four years of walking there. Just wish that some of them said thank you as we wait, but most seem oblivious that we are waiting at all. And a couple of teenagers clearly believing that the other side of the hedge is a discrete place for a clandestine rendezvous. Gave the dog a shock. Twice.

© Clare Sargent

My Virtual School – another day, another nap. 17.4.2020

17 April 2020. Snoozing in the afternoon always seems like a good idea at the time. For the second time in a fortnight I just had to curl up after lunch and waste away the afternoon. Must be all the fresh air and exercise.

At school the sports staff are providing regular advice and training sessions. They have challenged everyone to a 5k etc activity, to virtual cricket, and had 400+ working away together yesterday afternoon via Teams. I’m with 99 year old Captain Tom – 100 laps of his garden before his 100th birthday – and with a 90 year old woman in Scotland who is climbing a mountain on her stairs. He has now raised over £20m for NHS charities. Astonishing achievement. I’ve challenged the dog to widths of the river. Unfortunately he keeps trying for lengths.

There is a general, collective moan about motivational videos, advice about craft activities, how to establish exciting morally up-lifting regimes for the children which will allow time for parents to work from home, and how many languages you can learn this week whilst recreating great masterpiece paintings in your own front room just with the props you keep lying around. ‘Wreck of the Medusa‘ anyone?A friend today pointed out that however much she wants to do all these things at the end of every day there is just a low-level depression brought on by constant anxiety about ill family members, about aged parents in care homes, about the state of mind of those who are used to working productively but are now furloughed. Even before the worries about financial matters. Let alone the underlying fear about the virus itself. So a lot of naps.

Some motivational talks are useful though. A very moving, personal talk broadcast to the school this evening by a colleague whose home and family are in New York. And a talk during the Chapel service by an OR who is a cancer surgeon at the Churchill Hospital. Very, very helpful for us as a family with decisions to make.

And I was very proud to hear about a boy in my form who made it into the Daily Telegraph for making PPE masks for the NHS at home on a 3-D printer.

© Clare Sargent

My Virtual School – dilemmas. 16.4.2020

16 April 2020. The new way of school is making progress. Various responses from colleagues chatting as I walk the dog. One wants an emoji for spinning plates. Another was just walking in the clear air to clear his mind and eyes from chasing the screen. Advice of how to do roll call; how to help boys in China who cannot access all resources because of the government’s firewall; reminders that all boys should be at their work at 8.30am GMT – except those in America!

Last night the emphasis was on the pastoral side with Social Prayers in every Social. Tutors juggling an almost complete tally of boys for each boarding house on live links. Followed by the traditional drinks and round-up of the day by all the sub-tutors – a lot of G&T and relieved people: Day 1 had passed more than smoothly for most, some were enthusing about this new way of teaching, others were simply relieved to have juggled the technology and becoming comfortable with it. Later on, Cocoa – another tradition that seemed impossible to maintain but essential to the idea of a boarding school – an informal end to the day with snacks and drinks and a chance to chat on equal terms between boys and staff. Like Chapel, the collegiate element in this is central to the school’s ethos. Once again, most people there on live links, some even clutching a mug of cocoa (probably). So far, so good.

At home today, two dilemmas to tackle. One easily solved by the government announcing that not-quite-lock-down is extended by another three weeks. So the talk on Capability Brown that I was invited to give to a society next week is cancelled. A relief since the more we stay home and limit contacts the greater the desire to stay home and limit contacts. Are we all beginning to suffer from mild agoraphobia? Or has it reached the galloping stage when a drive into Oxford seems an almost insurmountable obstacle course?

But the second dilemma is much harder. Husband is due at hospital for a CT scan on Monday. Not keen on the idea. How much has the media clouded our judgement if we now fear the hospitals themselves?

© Clare Sargent

My Virtual School – new term. 14.4.2020

14 April 2020. It’s been a long day. Much of it like every other day in lock-down. Essential shopping for the week (forgot to buy coffee), the longest queue outside of Waitrose that I have experienced so far, but the carpark is filled with blossoming cherry trees and sunshine. More people wearing masks today as they shopped. But everything was available, except flour, and no new supply expected.

But today is not like any other day. Today is the first day of the new term at school. It began, as all terms do, with the Common Room meeting: pep talks and notices, followed by an INSET session. Later in the day, Warden’s Assembly followed by the Chapel service. And no one there for any of it. The whole school and staff scattered around the world, united by the internet.

The gallery view on zoom for the Common Room meeting showed so many familiar faces, each in relative isolation with their families. The Warden’s message to us, repeated from last week and to be at the forefront of this term: ambition, innovation, realism, reflection, care.

The website for Virtual Radley is now live, with just such an ambitious and innovative programme covering all aspects of school life. One of my form asked me before we all went home weeks ago ‘what will happen if I miss chapel?’ we wait to see because all of it is experimental, so dependent on technology, on imagination, on stamina and resilience, and on self-motivation. How hard to teach when so much of teaching is about personal interaction, those momentary glances, reading a pupil’s responses by body language, using the teacher’s own voice and silences to tease out a thought, and the boys reacting to each other, striking ideas, sharing excitement (or not). Now all by screen. And advice today of the sheer physicality, the ergonomics of sitting at a lap top for hours at a time.

And central to the ethos of the school – a Chapel service. I remember eons ago back in early March when the choir recorded the responses just in case it came to this. No one really believed any of it then. But now it was strangely moving to listen to the broadcast service, with a hymn sung long ago by the boys for a CD, echoing around the empty chapel. And then the solemn gravity of a piece by Bach to close.

School has begun.

© Clare Sargent

My Virtual School – Easter Day. 12.4.2020

12 April 2020. One of the great celebration days has passed by very quietly. Much the same routine as every day at the moment. Breakfast, read, elevenses, snooze, lunch, colouring book, think about constructive things that could be done, read, tea, long dog walk, gin, dinner, discuss the day, furtive flitting through the graveyard with the dog and so to bed.

We watched a short service of Holy Communion by our vicar in Faringdon. And enjoyed the choir of Wells Cathedral all singing via zoom – a great performance. Tried to avoid Twitter or news for today. But the news is not good. The number of dead in the UK now exceeds 10,000. It all still seems very remote but we are hearing of more people that we know who are suffering. Mercifully no more deaths. But one family where there is a lead nurse in the house all have it. All were tested, but complained how long the tests took to administer and then to get the results: five days while a key worker from the JR had to stay in quarantine. Annoyed that Addenbrooke’s can manage the same thing in three hours (allegedly).

Another friend busily sewing scrubs for hospital workers in the Midlands. And a long chat with the security man at school. He was phoned by his brother-in-law in Wales asking whether to get the police: four families had arrived from Birmingham, broken down the gate to his house and set up tents in the garden. Police duly sent for.

Easter sunrise service on Folly Hill has always been a favourite. A quiet walk through the sleeping streets in the soft air. Dawn gradually breaking around us. Slowly more people come into site, all heading for the paths up the hill. We have done this by moonlight and comet-light, and when a bus was burning on the roundabout on the A420. Nothing today. Or so we thought, until a friend sent her photos of a glorious sunrise, with herself and her two children standing vigil with candles alone on the hill.

© Clare Sargent

My Virtual School – crafts. 11.4.2020

11 April 2020. No flour to be got from anywhere. The flour mills are working overtime to keep up with demand. Everyone has turned to baking. A lot of questions floating around on Twitter and Face Book from friends working out how to cook sourdough bread. No-one can get yeast. The BBC Good Food recipe for banana bread is now their all-time most viewed article. I guess everyone is desperately working out how to use up all the bananas they bought. Bananas have a lot of potassium, right? Definitely good for the immune system. Or something similar. I bought many more than usual myself. Bananas with custard. Bananas with yoghurt. Bananas in fruit salad. If we had any bread it would be nana sandwiches – I remember those so well!

Odd, really, that we have a lot of WW2 analogies and comparisons floating around. Even Gardeners’ World yesterday had a ‘Dig for Victory’ theme going. And yet the lack of bananas was synonymous with all the shortages and rationing of WW2.

And friends who aren’t baking for victory have all turned to sewing. Calls across the country for people to set to and make scrubs and masks for the NHS. The shortage of PPE is a recurring theme in the news, in the questions at the daily government briefing. There does seem to be a belief among journalists that equipment can be magicked out of thin air by any government worth its salt and that failure to do so makes them complicit in every death of a key worker. But all these things need time, supply chains and raw materials. Our Design Engineering dept have been making masks for a local GP practice, but had to pause for a few days to source more plastic sheets. The GP practice in Faringdon are now kitted out with multi-coloured patch-work scrubs after a friend who runs a quilting business made her stash of materials available to anyone with a sewing machine.

Everywhere craft skills are being revived and coming into their own. A real up-side to the lock-down.

© Clare Sargent