Copy by Melanie Bateson

I think it’s fair to say that the school year that was 2020 was not what anybody had planned. Or expected. The very IDEA that our modern society could be locked down due to the rapid spread of a virus that had the potential to prove fatal was laughable. People not being allowed to go to work? Ludacris. Folk losing their jobs because companies they worked for were deemed non-essential? Cray cray. None of us could have believed what was about to happen to our way of life, through no fault of our own.

In March, with the news reporting with ever greater urgency the threat of a virus they were calling COVID-19, it seemed that a disaster film had come to life in our modern world. This particular parent went from being blasé about the likelihood that the virus was anything to worry about, to alarmed when she was stood down for a new job before it had the chance to begin, due to office closures throughout Melbourne, and the world. I was not alone in my disbelief that a world wide pandemic was upon us.

St Thomas More started sending out messages via their school community communications app, School stream, from the 23rd of March. The Premier of our state, Daniel Andrews, was making announcements every day regarding the implementation of new rules that we, as a society, were going to need to abide by if we were to be kept safe from transmitting or catching COVID-19. These went on to include the closure of schools.
Imagine it. Teachers went from planning a ‘normal’ term, to having to learn new skills and techniques that would become known as ‘remote learning’. They needed to upskill themselves in the available technology that would allow them to teach the syllabus. They needed to tweak lesson plans so that they could be taught via a home computer. They also needed to be physically at the school, so that children whose parents were deemed to be essential workers had somewhere safe to go to learn. The children of those in the medical world, on what would become known as the frontline of the fight against COVID-19.

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) teacher Brent McLaughlin had already begun considering how the school would provide remote learning if a lockdown eventuated upon viewing the news. The idea of a lockdown was extremely foreign to everybody, certainly not something that Australians were accustomed to. It was almost laughable.

While using technology at St Thomas More, cyber safety was provided by a sturdy firewall specifically designed for that purpose. Brent needed to figure out, then, how children could receive their education via a home network, that was NOT protected by this firewall. How could he both allow the children to receive their education, and protect their right to privacy and online safety? The need to workshop this notion needed to be explored and implemented. Quickly.

Teachers were forced to learn technologies that they wouldn’t normally have any need for. Google Classroom was chosen as the interface between the teachers and students, so teachers needed to be trained on the fly. To assist both the teachers, students, and parents in this necessarily urgent learning, it was decided that a staged approach would be the way to go. This meant that, initially, the school had to make sure that student access was working, and teachers had access to their virtual classroom.

This worked very well for the Grade 5/6 cohort, however proved less successful as each level decreased, due in most part to the younger members of the school community being less familiar with iPad and Chromebooks. Not many Grade 2 children, for example, would be accustomed to emailing or typing documents on a computer!

All changes, expectations and rules were then communicated to the parents of the children of St Thomas More via apps and emails. And possibly some hysterical private text messages. Some parents took this stream of information in their stride. They set about making an area in their home for their children to study. They implemented any and all suggestions and rules as set out by Mr McLaughlin. Others wondered and feared how on earth they were going to continue to make their family life ‘work’ while remote learning was in play. The general feeling among the school and wider community was ‘can do’, with a side of repressed panic.

I had the privilege of having a natter with a few parents from St Thomas More school about their experiences of lockdown, remote learning, work/life balance during a global pandemic, and the general weirdness of 2020. I can share that privilege with you, dear reader, however I feel it my responsibility to forewarn you. You may find yourself with a sudden case of ‘the feels’.

Single Mum, Trish, has had her share of difficulties. At the beginning of 2020, she found herself in unfamiliar territory. For the first time in her life, she was without employment. With her son in his final year at primary school, she knew that this was an important time for him.

The rights of passage that come with Grade 6 at St Thomas More are traditions that are held in high esteem by the students. School leadership roles are taken very seriously. The sacrament of Confirmation is undertaken. The final school camp with chums that have often traversed the entirety of primary school with one another is relished. Reflection Day, the Handing Over Ceremony. It’s a wonderful year. These processes help the children to feel the specialness of their primary school experience. It also helps to lift their esteem so that they can face what is often the frightening reality of beginning secondary school.

Already a bit stressed out because of the changes in his home, no doubt a global pandemic was not helpful. That said, having his Mum home to assist with the huge changes in his schooling life turned out to be a huge blessing. This turned out to be the silver lining that the family needed to hang sustain themselves through 2020.

Navigating the huge alterations required to the school year was a bit tricky. Even the basics, like where to set up the home learning, had to be considered quite carefully. Trish had decided to do some study herself now that she had some time at home, so her workspace was also a factor. Being a bright kid, the set up and technical side of remote learning were easy for him to adapt to. The novelty of being able to get out of bed a minute before having to log on to class AND in pyjamas was awesome!

These little ‘wins’ were all part of the adventure-like feel of the first lockdown. When the second lockdown was announced, however, Trish began to see changes in her son that concerned her. To begin with, she noticed that the daily list of tasks were no longer being worked through. An out of character lack of motivation seemed to descend like a winter mist. Trying to keep him on track, Trish pointed out that she was doing her school work too, and that if she could do it, so could he. He stopped asking for help when he got stuck on a part of the work, and the feeling of being overwhelmed and alone crept further into the usually happy lad.

The kind, constant loving support that Trish was providing seemed to lose its ability to comfort and soothe. The online chats with his mates, not allowed before lockdown rendered this the only way to ‘see’ friends, were not enough. This was not a matter of discipline or work ethic. She could see her son slipping down into anxiety, and she did not know what to do to help him.

By August, things were at an all time low. Children do not yet have the tools to recognise why they react in certain ways to stressful situations, and their general response to problems that they feel unable to handle is to blame themselves. Overhearing a conversation between he son and one of his buddies that illustrated how poor his self esteem had become, Trish knew that she had to take action. Quickly.

Contacting his teacher, Trish relayed her concerns. In consultation with both the Well Being Leader and Principal, the decision was made that he was to come into school for a return to face-to-face learning. The results were immediate and positive. “I haven’t seen him so excited to go to school before in my life. It made a huge difference.” Having that connection again was everything. The ability of the staff at St Thomas More to recognise that one of their own was drowning without the benefits of social contact prevented a further demise in the mental health of one of their families.

Jo, with children in Grade 4 and 6, also coped well during the first lockdown. The ability to do schoolwork from home, in pyjamas, with parents either working or just being close by, kind of rocked. Add in an amped up treat baking schedule, and one could be forgiven for concluding that this was bliss. Once face to face learning at school had returned and been taken away again as a result of the second lockdown, things took a turn for the worse here, too.

One of the most conscientious students this writer has ever come across, the sense of general anxiety that pervaded the community at large appeared as fear and panic over whether tasks had been completed. Given she was actually ahead with her school work, it is evident that the workload was not the issue. Lockdown could not, it seems, quarantine anybody from the at times overwhelming disquiet deep within, from the most studious child to parents who are known for brimming with joy for life and positivity that is the best kind of contagious.

No, when this student started wigging out over work she didn’t even need to do, and a call was made to her teacher, he and the rest of the St Thomas More school team did what they do. The teacher sent a beautiful, reassuring email to soothe panic. The Learning Support Officer called and spoke with reassurance and helped to take what felt like a very big problem, and diminish it back down to its proper size. This is how a community supports one another. With their intrinsic ability to provide hugs and comfort via email, phone or on a computer screen. No mask or hand sanitizer needed for these expressions of love and genuine care.

Chatting with a group of Mum’s with children ranging from Prep to Grade 6, a range of experiences were divulged. Frankly, most of those pertaining to the first lockdown contained the joys to be found studying and working from home, with food and the wearing of pyjamas again featuring. Baking was an oft utilised instrument to while away the hours after online learning was over for the day. The second lockdown, as previously discussed, saw a very different set of realities emerge, as Victorians in particular wondered if ‘normal’ life would exist again. Would we be able to see and hug our friends in the future? Did our friends and family know how much we missed them? Did they know how much we wished we could see them like we used ‘before’? This questioning of what our future would hold, and keen desire for a return to the familiarity of mundane life wore the positivity down for most of us. Our children felt it. How could they not? The anxiety that we had been able to stave off during our first lockdown touched all of our lives, as the novelty had well and truly worn off.

Whether a particular family unit consisted of your traditional kids with Mum and Dad, multigenerational adults, single parents, or something else entirely, it appears that everyone coped fairly well during the first lockdown, due to the following factors:

● The staged, careful implementation and roll out of technological tools designed to aide remote learning
● The novelty factor of education being provided within the home context
● The novelty factor of wearing pyjamas, having parents who worked from
home, or remaining at school but with dramatically fewer students

The common thread, during the second lockdown? Huge, unremitting, unfamiliar anxiety. From those who had already had some experience with this foul beast, to those who were experiencing it for the first time, it appears that feelings of anxiety touched everybody.

School Principal Caroline Quinton experienced the initial droplets of information leaking in from the popular media pertaining to the oncoming pandemic with a sense of calm, rather than alarm or panic. It wasn’t until one of our own students returned from an overseas trip with their father and had to be quarantined back in February that she felt her first stirrings that the chatter about some virus overseas might be more of an issue than was first thought.

With questions coming her way thick and fast from staff and families , Caroline herself was awaiting information from the powers that be in the government and the education department. All she could offer was that sense of calm, and await the guidelines that would eventually be passed on, days after announcements were made at press conferences while we all anxiously tuned in. “We’d hear on the news, this is what’s happening, these will be the new regulations…we called them the School Operations Guide in the end. It would take two or three days before we would get the same information from Catholic Education.” She could not know what she did not know, much to her frustration, and the frustration of everyone who was awaiting the next lot of instructions regarding how we were going to need to alter our ‘normal’.
Massive documents would be sent through, which had to be read and applied. All very quickly and to the letter.

The steep learning curve for all staff was exhausting and the most intense challenge ever faced for the school. During each lockdown, teachers and LSO’s would be putting in incredible hours in order to adhere to guidelines, both working from home and from the school. They would add extra videos and activities that would help the students to balance out the unprecedented amount of screen time, and respond personally to the multitude of individual emails from families, struggling to make it all happen at home. Caroline noted with admiration and empathy that “One member of staff was falling asleep down in her classroom at 3 o’clock in the afternoon”, because of the effort she was putting in for her charges. She was not alone.

Once the second lockdown came around, St Thomas More was ready, after the massive amounts of preparation already undertaken during the first round. They were so proficient, by now, that they could evolve the curriculum and practicalities of applying it as they went. Planning ahead, reworking, it became kind of an exhausting second nature. All of that upskilling had created a new superpower, almost.

Always at the ready to provide extra help with learning, with coping mechanisms, with an indispensable email or an emergency return to the familiarity of the school confines, were our team at St Thomas More, Belgrave. No doubt going through their own doses of pandemic induced fears, the apparent ease with which extra support was provided to each student, to each family, was the true representation of Christ’s love.

I often wonder, mostly to myself, who was looking after the teachers, the support staff, the administrators, and the leaders of our school while they were empathising, supporting, and loving all of us. Perhaps it was St Thomas More himself, a man who truly knew the value of education for the whole person. The scholar, the spirit and the physical. Because St Thomas More Belgrave, in unprecedented times, you rose to the challenges of 2020. You gave us love, support, resilience, and pride in our school. We are prouder than ever to be part of your story.


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