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Meeting needs in a time of crisis

Michelle Green /
10 June 2020

Emerging from a crisis and adapting to the new normal present their own challenges. But as our phone and email logs show, schools still seek the personalised support that only one-on-one engagement can provide.

A quick scan of a phone and email log for one day in mid-March gives a snapshot of the pressures COVID-19 imposed on Independent schools – and their reliance on ISV, especially in a crisis.

The log kept by ISV’s reception staff records 17 calls and emails from school staff and parents, seeking advice, information and, at times, reassurance. It’s only a fraction of the contacts between schools and ISV on that day, but it’s revealing nonetheless.

Staff at one school enquired about the management of students returning from overseas. Others wanted advice on what to do if there’s a case of COVID-19 in their community. One principal asked about assemblies and other large gatherings. A business manager wanted to know where to buy bulk hand sanitiser. One school had problems with internet connectivity if it introduced remote learning. A parent had a legal question about school closures.

A detailed email from the principal of a suburban low-fee school illustrated the uncertainty and stress many schools faced. He was planning for physical closures because anxious parents were keeping their children home. His staff felt vulnerable. He was struggling to maintain simultaneous onsite and online classes. He had students returning from overseas and entering self-quarantine. And now he was concerned the school’s federal funding was under threat if it closed its classrooms.

ISV responded to all these calls, and more, before the day was out.

Embracing the new normal

While it’s too early to document all the lessons learned from our COVID-19 experience, these are some preliminary observations about how ISV coped.

Firstly, our support for Member Schools rested on the range and depth of experience of ISV staff. We are fortunate to employ former principals and highly experienced teachers who are familiar with the complex challenges of running a school – from early learning centres up to year 12. Their expertise is backed up by other staff with a deep understanding of government regulation, funding, finance, employment relations, and media and communications. If they didn’t have the information a school wanted, they usually knew where to find it. They know the Independent sector and understood the unique and varied cultures of our membership.

Schools – from the smallest to the biggest – have drawn heavily on this expertise over the past four months.

While we didn’t anticipate a pandemic and a nationwide lockdown, we had tools in place that helped us meet the needs of schools operating online and teaching remotely. In recent years we built isConnect, a unique online platform of resources – information, templates, online professional development courses – that schools can access when and how they want. We built on this as the COVID-19 crisis rapidly evolved.

From early March up until the start of June, our website’s COVID-19 page had 16,069 hits by 11,124 different users. Over the same period, the ISV website has had 21,155 hits on anything that contains COVID-19 as a key word in the title of the page or download.

When our Development Centre physically closed in mid-March, our staff created resources to assist teachers with remote teaching and learning, though digital network hubs, by linking teachers with colleagues, and by rostering staff to provide one-on-one support to teachers.

Before COVID-19, we had adopted online communication tools to ensure we could remotely maintain our own internal operations. Once staff started working from home, these tools allowed us to hold regular virtual conferences of all our teams, including senior staff focussed solely on responding to calls about the pandemic. These online meetings and the routine logging of calls meant all of us could stay abreast of issues of common concern to schools.

As our phone and email logs show, schools still seek the personalised support that only one-on-one engagement can provide.

In recent years we’d enhanced the content on our Parents Website so it’s become central to our broad community engagement. This work continued during the crisis, when we redesigned the look and accessibility of the site and rebuilt its underlying platform. This paid off as the site saw massive growth in reach and readership by providing parents with news they could use at a time of great uncertainty.

While we and the schools we support are proudly independent, we are also connected with other school sectors, with a common commitment to education and a shared responsibility to the wider community.

ISV has long-standing engagement with the government and Catholic school sectors, through membership of a range of panels and committees, including those convened by the Victorian Department of Education and Training. Membership of these groups gave us early insights into official planning for COVID-19 which meant, for instance, that we could encourage schools to plan early for the prospect of physical school closures. It also allowed us to have an influence in decision-making. On a practical level, it gave us access to official information resources that we could share with Member Schools.

Emerging from the crisis

Advocacy is at the core of what ISV does and this was crucial during recent months as Independent schools faced particular pressure. This was especially the case when our sector found itself caught in the cross-fire of a political dispute between different levels of government over the issue of classroom closures. I’m confident the principled and responsible way we and individual schools responded to that pressure has enhanced our reputation.

We informed our advocacy by surveying schools early in the crisis. These surveys allowed us to alert governments to the unique financial stresses confronting many schools, as the impact of the economic slowdown – now a recession – began to affect school incomes. ISV staff played a leading role in alerting governments to the strains on early childhood services, and in helping schools navigate through sensitive employment relations issues. We sought to unravel the complexities of JobKeeper and other government measures.

This advocacy was reinforced by a high tempo of communications activities, with consistent messages delivered through our own channels – including daily updates to principals – and an unprecedented level of engagement with external media.

Emerging from a crisis and adapting to what’s called the new normal present their own challenges. This, too, is reflected in our more recent email and phone logs.

Michelle Green is Chief Executive of Independent Schools Victoria.