I myself led a school in the Caribbean where we were on hurricane watch from June to November. Staff are trained to deal with these emergency situations and there are procedures – communication channels, drills and stockpiling – in place. I was very fortunate that during my headship in the Cayman Islands our school remained open through some very mild tropical storms. However, in September 2004 Grand Cayman was hit and pulverised by a Category 5 hurricane, Hurricane Ivan. It was so devastating and epoch-changing, that on this island paradise, time was measured as “Before Ivan” and “After Ivan”.
It is now very clear that we are in such an epoch-changing moment and I have detected the phrase “Before Corona” already creeping into our daily discourse. We are still figuring out what “After Corona” will resemble; this is difficult to say because the hurricane is still overhead and it looks as if it will be some time before it dissipates. We are unable to go outside yet to survey the damage.
In the Cayman Islands, the economy bounced back very quickly and the vast rebuilding project provided the government with an opportunity to modernise infrastructure, hurricane-proof new construction and to redevelop the off-shore services; such momentous events can lead to greater innovation and leaps forward.
The Coronavirus Challenge is somewhat of a different beast. Most natural disaster examples above are short, sharp jolts that shake us up badly but last a relatively short time, and then the danger has passed. There is a big mess, many headaches but the recovery plan can be implemented within days. The other main difference is that most natural disasters are localised to a finite area so that aid and assistance can flow in quite quickly from unaffected neighbours. With Coronavirus, it is global and it is not short-term.
The challenge to international schools is very high and many schools may face an existential threat. International schools developed primarily to serve the needs of internationally minded families and the growth of international education over the last 30 years is intrinsically linked to globalisation and international trade. Warsaw had one international school, primarily for the diplomatic community before 1989, and now there are a variety of options. Thus, if the Coronavirus leads to a retreat from open borders, a growth in protectionism and a decrease in international trade, then international schools will be impacted. If, however, we see the need for greater international cooperation, the strengthening of global governance, the reopening of borders, then the opposite may be the case.
At BSW this crisis has led us to innovate. We have embraced the joys of Zoom and we have implemented a learning portal. We have been evolving our approach to distance learning and we have been working to sketch out the new world that will emerge when the storm passes. We have tried to address challenges as opportunities. Our school canteen lay idle once school closures were announced, so we teamed up with the Kulczyk Foundation to provide 300 hot meals daily for needy children in Warsaw. These children were suddenly unable to receive hot meals from their schools, so we saw a chance to help.
We have seen our teachers respond so well to this challenge and develop their teaching on-line. In times of crisis the most obvious response is to return to where you feel safe and there was a temptation to get back to Britain before lockdown was imposed. I salute all our teachers who chose to remain and stick it out; this has been very helpful in ensuring quality provision and contact. Whatever technology we use, the relationship between teacher and pupil is core to what we do and this has been proven even more so at this time.
The post-corona world has yet to emerge but it is clear that we will not be returning to the pre-corona world. Schools will face further disruption in delivering the traditional teaching model in the coming academic year, and it is likely that educational institutions will face further closures going forward as the authorities struggle to suppress new outbreaks.
However, we humans are social beings and we will not see the replacement of schools by computers. We will observe however, a more hybrid model developing where pupils are empowered by their school learning to adapt quickly and smoothly to online learning. The teacher will become more of a mentor and motivator. We all crave those relationships, pupils even more so. There may be times when we will need to be apart, but we will still be together.
About the author:
Tom McGrath has over 20 years’ experience in international education with successful headships in Poland, Portugal and the Caribbean. A graduate of University of Limerick and Trinity College Dublin, he has also completed advanced studies in Applied Linguistics, International Education and International Relations. He has been with BSW since 2017.