An interview with … Matthew Read, Principal, Prospect Primary School (1 of 3)

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Editor’s Note: In the ‘An interview with …’ series, we speak to education leaders on a range of issues, and publish the discussion in an edited Q+A.

Matthew Read is intent on strengthening Prospect Primary School‘s ties to the community and building on its track record as one of government’s top-performing schools. Read is responsible for about 360 students and a staff of about 35 at Prospect Primary, which opened in 2004 and is one of the government’s three International Baccalaureate schools.

In the first part of this interview, Read talks about Prospect Primary’s response to the COVID-19 closure, and the challenges and opportunities that arose from virtual learning.

Matthew Read, Principal, Prospect Primary School

In subsequent instalments (to be published over the next week), Read discusses the return to physical classes in the fall, as well as the school’s strengths, areas for improvement and ongoing initiatives.

(Read Part Two here.)

Bio: Read arrived in August 2016 to become Principal of Prospect Primary. He has 20 years of experience as a teacher in London government schools. His most immediate past position was Principal of a government school in West London. He holds a master’s degree, a bachelor’s degree, and several UK teaching qualifications.

— Please talk about how Prospect Primary responded when COVID-19 arrived in the Cayman Islands in mid-March.

Really, the fear of Coronavirus started in January. At the time we knew in terms of schools that we’re quite a vulnerable community. There are lots of people in a relatively enclosed space.

Going through January and February there was the threat, the dawning realisation that the virus was creeping across the planet, and it was coming our way, and it was a matter of time before it got here.

The only thing that I can liken it to is, if we go back to 2016 and Hurricane Matthew, there was that same sense of everyone stopping and watching. Hurricane Matthew, if it had only been a few hours longer on the track it was on, before it swung that way, we would have gotten quite a big swipe in the Cayman Islands. You could feel that hangover from Ivan, the experience of Ivan everyone went through, and some indeed Paloma.

It was a similar sense of concern growing with people, conscience of what was going on, desperate for news the entire time. It was always at the back of everyone’s mind.

We started the conversations about, “OK, what are we going to do if it gets here, and we face school closures like we’re seeing in other countries?” When that chap came off the cruise ship and we knew he was ill … We’re a small community, so you know immediately if you got 3 or 4 or 5 staff at Health City unwell and potentially with Coronavirus, it doesn’t take you long to work out the direct lines back to the school, back into the community. “Oh dear, so-and-so’s husband works there.” There’s one.

So there was that constant thinking that was gnawing on everybody during that period. We started thinking about how are we going to look at distance learning. What are the resources that we’ve got to start pulling together. We started that conversation.

Having said that, on March 13 when principals were called together, and we sat down and we were told that schools would be closed on the Monday — that caught us quicker than we were perhaps expecting. We thought we maybe had another 2, 3 weeks, and we didn’t think that on the 13th we’d be called to a meeting saying, “By the way schools, will be closing at 3.”

We all started working quite furiously at that point. We wanted to make sure that resources were going home. We made sure textbooks were going home. We made sure workbooks were going home. So the teachers knew what the kids were holding so they could reference those in terms of anything they sent out.

That initial 2 weeks was about everyone just making sure they’ve got contact with their class, making sure that the parents knew what their role was going to be. Actually I think as a community — and this is island-wide — I think everyone was spinning at that point. It was a case of: Get your house in order. Make sure you’re all OK and understand what’s going on.

That first 2 weeks we sent home enough to, if you like, to hold the children, and then we as a staff sat down and looked at what we were going to do going forward. Very quickly … it was either the 18th or 19th … I said to the team, “Listen, I think we need to prepare for the fact that this isn’t going to be short-term.”

Initially the signal that we got was that we would be returning quite shortly after the Easter Break. I said, “Realistically if we look at what’s happening in other countries, I think we might even be looking at towards the end of the year before coming back — if we come back.

“We’ve got to start thinking now about how we move on to a digital model, away from a paper-based model because if we get a full shutdown, and a full shelter in place, we’re not going to be going into school and photocopying packets together, and parents coming out and collecting. That’s just not going to work. What we’ve got to do is have a model that the parents can engage in without leaving home.”

— How much of a hurdle was access to internet and technology?

We started switching across at that point onto digital platforms. Now we had done a survey to find out how many of our parents had access to laptops and computers at home, and immediately we knew that’s where our challenge is.

We had a number of families that didn’t have internet connection. Yeah they had cell phones and they had smartphones. Then it becomes, “How do you deliver meaningful education to those children by using smartphones?”

You look at a class, and we had some classes that had fairly good digital penetration and a lot of the students had access to a laptop or a computer or even to a tablet of some sort. But there were a couple of kids in that class who literally the only thing they had was mum’s phone.

Then you had other classes where the proportion of children who only had access via phone was much higher. So we started into the question of, “OK, how do we get more equipment out to the children?”

We started talking to local sponsors. The IT team started breaking down the laptops that we’ve got in school, approaching the department for more laptops. In the first 3 weeks, 4 weeks of that lockdown, we distributed 150 laptops to families. That was nowhere near enough.

What we had to do was to prioritise: “They’ve only got cellphone access; they’re number one for the laptops.” You sort of, turned it on its head. We got 150 computers out there. and that was a big task in itself.

The other thing that we were concentrating on at that point was, we knew the level of vulnerability in the community. There was absolutely a concentration on making sure that families got fed. If you look at ‘Maslow’s hierarchy of needs’, one of the first things you’ve got to get right before people can start learning effectively, you’ve got to make sure that the basic human needs are met: People feel safe, they’ve got food.

Then, only once you’ve addressed those basic needs, are people going to be able to access learning, or support their children’s learning, and things like that. We worked very closely with the department at that point to make sure that we had meals going out to those families that would be on free school meals here.

As numbers of families got laid off over that period, we were pulling more and more families into those meal deliveries. Things like the ‘1,000 meals initiative’ that came out, Feed our Future, the Needs Assessment Unit and what they were doing were absolutely phenomenal in terms of finding us the capital to pay for caterers in order to get those meals out.

We had gotten a brand-new school minibus. and it was great in the first part of January/February/March, running kids out to sports events, all those curriculum enrichment things. Little did we realise what a community lifeline that was going to be in terms of taking meals out to families

We got to the point that by a few weeks after Easter, there’d be families out waiting for the bus to be coming. It really becomes sort of that lifeline. We’d be leaning out the windows of the bus and handing food out, and for lots of people that was the only contact they were getting outside of their own households. It was quite extraordinary really.

OK, you’ve got social media and everything, but this was real human contact. As you can imagine we had to turn to our staff and say, “Guys we’re going to need volunteers to be on that bus to hand out the meals.” There were days when I might be in the driver’s seat, or we might have a volunteer driver come from one of the bus companies that was also helping out. But that was a lifeline particularly during the earlier part of COVID.

From the 16th through the Easter Break, which was that first 4 weeks of closure, we were setting up technology and working out those methods of learning. Teachers that were familiar with Google started setting up Google classroom and Google sites. Others were familiar with [Microsoft] Teams, and shortly after Easter we had rolled out Teams accounts to every single child in the school.

That was no mean feat when the kids aren’t in school. One of the things you can’t do is just blanket-email out account information to kids who don’t have accounts. You can’t broadcast it on Facebook. You can’t put it out on WhatsApp. You’ve got to find ways to give that piece of information that’s confidential, so it’s not broadcast out. You can imagine, if I get hold of your account details, I can sit there and cause all sorts of havoc pretending to be you.

So we had to make sure those safeguards were in place — and also say to parents, “By the way, the computer we’re giving you is for your child. It is monitored. Mommy and Daddy are not to be on Netflix when your kids are supposed to be in class.” <Laughs> I mean there were lighter conversations like that, that would happen.

— What happened when virtual learning settled into place beyond Easter?

By the period after we got back after the Easter Break, the whole team was working far more efficiently. Staff took the Easter weekend, and that was the only downtime the team got. After that we were back in the full swing. We had everyone delivering lessons every single day. We were doing it by various different media.

We had 3 classes where, because of the number of children who only had smartphones (and we just didn’t have enough computers to go out at the time, although we got more and more as we went on), the team used really innovative ways of teaching, just using WhatsApp and WhatsApp meetings — whereby you register, and voicemails are going back between the teacher and parents, or the teachers and the children.

I never realised from the teachers’ perspective, you could hook WhatsApp up to your laptop so you could send out your worksheets, and work you want the children to be doing, by WhatsApp. They could then say, “You’re going to be doing such-and-such page in your textbook I’ve given you. These are the things that you’ve got to look out for.”

The teacher would send out a 5- or 10-minute speaking part of the lesson and say, “That’s what I want you to do. Here’s the activity. Now I want you to come back if you have concerns.” Parents would be ringing in saying, “We got that, but he’s stuck on this, what do we do?”

We had a reality where it was not just teachers preventing the students from sitting back. We actually had novel learning going on as well, which was really exciting.

We concentrated on making sure the children were getting a maths lesson every day, an English lesson every day, and then planning it so that across the week, they would get that full spectrum of the curriculum.

I think the context that’s got to be understood is that you had very stressed families, you had competition for limited resources. Say you have a number of children at home. If you’ve only got the 1 laptop, the priority goes to the child that’s in their CXC year. They’re going to be doing their CXC’s in July and August. We’ve got to make sure that they’re attending lessons first.

You see how there might arise a pecking order of the children going down from there. We had to take that into account. Yeah, the family might have internet access, and they might have a laptop at home, but they’ve got an older child doing CXC’s.

Now that’s where we worked in partnership with Clifton Hunter and with John Gray. We knew that the older children were having computers allocated out to them by the high schools, and that relieved some of the pressure as well. It was a constant process of just making sure the resources were out there.

One of the things that we did that was a bit of fun was, as part of our resources last year from the Ministry, we got these robots called Botleys. We doled out 100-and-something-odd robots to the children, and then sent out the work for them, so they could do a lot of investigative maths and computing using Botleys, which was quite good fun as well.

Getting them back has been something of a challenge, because I think they’ve become part of the home.

We had a lot of imaginative stuff going on. We had class websites being set up, teachers using Google classrooms, as I said, to make class websites, and resources going out through those class websites.

The whole time we were thinking about synchronous/asynchronous forms of delivery because you might say, at 9.30 we’re going to have your class’s maths lesson, but if you’ve got competition for limited tech resources within the home, you might not have everyone be able to be there at 9.30. So you deliver the lesson to the majority of the class, but you record it so that those that can’t be there at that time can then watch the recording of the input, so that they can take part at, oh, 10 or 11 o’clock.

You’re constantly working with the fact that you’ve got 2 streams going on all the time, in terms of, some of the work going out, they need to be able to do independently. Or here’s your input, and “Parents, this is what we’re going to need from you in order to support that learning.”

That was a really steep learning curve for everybody. I would say by about the 2nd or 3rd week after Easter we hit our stride. We got into a routine of sorts, in terms of the way that it’s working.

No, it was not perfect. No, it was not everything that I would like. Certainly there are lessons that we’ve learnt from. As I said, every student now has got a Teams account. By Christmas every student will have a laptop.

Should we have to shut down again, we can move literally overnight to that model whereby we’re using Teams as our core delivery method, rather than having to use a mix of media to do it.

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