While teachers and students may have only returned to campus for a few days before starting their long summer break, they have had a taste of what school life will be like for the next academic year – and principals have had time to put plans for next year in motion.
There is now nearly two months until most schools in Singapore will reopen for the start of a new academic year, and a new era in education. So how are how principals redesigning their schools to exist during the Covid-19 pandemic? As John Ridley, director of learning for Tanglin Trust School (pictured above) says, “There are still a lot of unknowns but we remain optimistic and prepared.”
WhichSchoolAdvisor looks at how schools in Singapore are navigating the new normal in education and talks to school leaders to find out how they are adapting to the changing situation.
Schools were not designed and built for social distancing. Campuses are typically places where students work around shared desks, children play tag in the playground, and young athletes tackle each other on the rugby pitch. Today, in Singapore’s schools, students are wearing masks, keeping 1m apart, and sharing the campus with only 50% of their school community at any one time. Nothing is the same as before, but throughout the period of distance learning teachers and students have already proved their ability to cope with change.
As John Ridley, director of learning at Tanglin Trust School, says: “Students and staff have all been missing the usual contact with our regular classes and colleagues, but equally it is wonderful to back on campus.”
Restrictions will be eased from June 29 as Singapore enters Phase 2 of its circuit breaker exit. Students in all year groups can return to campus daily, and schools can resume some group activities in PE lessons and restart some extra-curricular activities. This means that international schools in Singapore may not reopen with a hybrid of in-person lessons and distance learning.
Schools still face the logistical challenge of bringing every child back onto campus while adhering to social distancing guidelines; they will need to consider measures such as re-configuring classrooms and introducing one-way systems. They also need plans to remain flexible as the Covid-19 situation could change at any time, and new protocols and restrictions may be enforced.
However, for the foreseeable future schools are still faced with the challenge of fitting as many children into a classroom as possible while keeping them at a safe distance, and reworking timetables to meet social distancing requirements.
In a recent survey of teachers in the UK by TES, a hub for the teaching community, 47% said that their biggest concern about going back to school was social distancing. While many international schools with large campuses have the advantage of space and larger faculties to facilitate rotating schedules, they still face the challenges of making major structural changes to their teaching environment.
Rebecca Whelan, Tanglin’s head of Year 2 (Infant School) explains the challenges of social distancing for children as young as three years on campus.
“Children’s natural instinct is to give each other a hug when they see each other and share if they don’t have the right equipment. Explaining to them that we have to keep to our own bubble and use our own resources has been quite a change.
"But the children have adapted far quicker than anyone could have predicted, particularly with regard to social distancing– the idea of the personal bubble has resonated with them. They have picked up the language and made it their own.”
Many aspects of school that make it sociable and fun have been stripped back – the school assemblies, end of year plays, sports days, music events, and awards ceremonies. And Eugene Low, principal at The Grange Institution, explains how the focus is on making learning safe.
“Our students no longer have the luxury of mingling with friends from another class. We have had to make some changes to learning activities to minimise contact-sharing of equipment and manipulatives, as well as disallow students to sit in group, without sacrificing group work and collaborative discussions.
"We implemented a system where specialist and languages teachers who would otherwise teach across different class and year levels now delivered lessons via Zoom or other means.”
The recent move to distance learning has brought many forms of technology to the forefront of education. After experiencing the benefits of collaborative digital learning, can we expect to see new tools become part of the ‘new normal’ in schools.
John Ridley, director of learning at Tanglin Trust School, says that digital tools have long been part of its teachers’ toolkit to deliver the curriculum through self-paced activities and as platforms for personalised student feedback. Tanglin plans to use more podcasts and virtual presentations to reach parents more widely, and Microsoft Teams will become its preferred platform for lesson tasks and homework setting in the Senior School.
Ridley adds: “Video conferencing had not been used widely before the Covid-19 crisis and we will be incorporating these tools where appropriate, both in the socially-distanced setting (for example virtual classroom tours/meet the teacher to help with transitions) and when we are all back together.”
In some parts of the school, technology is being reduced as Paula Craigie, Tanglin’s head of Infant School, explains.
“For Infants, there has been a reduction in screen use, particularly in school but also for the remote learning provision, to compensate for increased use during the exclusively remote period of learning.”
Any previous notion that online learning was a speciality for any school’s most tech-savvy teachers has been swept away, and the digital shift in education has seen all teachers take on roles as Zoom presenters, webinar hosts and digital creators.
Low (The Grange Institution) said:
“The whole world now sees the possibility of online learning and the value of investing into suitable digital tools and platforms for learning to happen. The Grange has started investing into technology as part of our “TGI2.0” innovation and growth even before this pandemic.
“We have already brought in VR and AR, and we were in the process of starting to invest in e-resources rather than physical ones. Also, we will be evaluating different online tools to help us better document learning and assessments of students, and to facilitate communication of student learning with our parent community.”
Students in Singapore spent nearly three months working from home. While students may have newly-acquired independent study skills, have they fallen behind academically without the presence of a teacher? As schools reopen, how are teachers identifying any learning gaps and what steps are being taken to help students catch up?
Like most schools, The Grange Institution is still assessing the gaps that have possibly resulted from the home-based learning period. "We will address them accordingly once we have a better idea of what these might be and how extensive,” adds Low.
Unlike neighbouring countries such as Hong Kong where students were off campus for several months, school closures in Singapore were relatively short. Distance learning only happened in Term 3 when many schools have already covered many of the key learning objectives for the year.
Lucie Scott, head of precision teaching (Junior School) at Tanglin says: “We have carefully planned the remote learning content to concentrate on core skills, with tasks tailored for child-led, independent learning. Now we are in a blended learning approach, teachers are maximizing face-to-face time in the classroom to develop skills suited to direct instruction, which are consolidated through remote learning activities.
“We have been able to continue with our curriculum coverage, and we are not anticipating gaps as such. It is important to bear in mind that this situation has affected everyone and, even in normal circumstances, each child’s learning journey naturally moves at different speeds throughout its course.
Like many schools, Tanglin has a Personalised Learning Team that works closely with class teachers to help move children forward if intervention is required. It is also using the partial return to school – with half classes – to its advantage; this allows teachers to focus more closely on children’s progress when they are in the classroom and precision teach if extra support is needed.
The impact of distance learning differs for students of different ages too. Allan Forbes, Tanglin’s head of Senior School, believes secondary students are least affected.
“In reality, many teachers have talked about not being behind, and even running ahead. Possibly remote learning has the advantage, for older students, of fewer distractions and a self-paced approach but despite this theory, we prefer to have the students in school, with all the social and collaboration benefits that entails.”
Singapore has the advantage over many countries where schools have remained closed since early spring and will only reopen (hopefully) for the start of the new academic year; in the UAE, for example, an early decision was made to close campuses for the entire Term 3. Many international schools in Singapore have had the opportunity to reopen, albeit briefly; this has given them time to see how plans for the ‘new normal’ will work in practice.
However, as Tanglin’s director of learning John Ridley says, there is continuing uncertainty about how schools will operate from August 2020.
“There are still a lot of unknowns but we remain optimistic and prepared. It is likely that many events and activities will need to be modified for at least the first part of next year but we will do that with energy and positivity,” said Ridley.
“We are planning by being optimistic but also realistic. We will minimise plans that involve large gatherings or overseas travel for at least the first part of the year – and almost every event will have a backup plan with a remote alternative.”
The Grange Institution follows a January to December calendar and has reopened its campus during the middle of its academic year. Looking ahead to the 2021, Low foresees teacher recruitment being a challenge if current travel restrictions have not been lifted.
“Implementing quality co-curricular activities that support the students’ in-class learning and self and social development would be challenging too, due to safe-distancing, intermingling and cohort restrictions,” adds Low.
“Good planning is needed every year and not just an extraordinary year like this. We will push forth with the many campus rejuvenation, curriculum refinements, and introduction of new programmes and initiatives for 2021. We can’t predict the future, we just need to be as much future-ready as possible.”
No sooner have students returned to campus than they are breaking up for the long summer holiday. In fact, some international schools didn’t even have the opportunity to reopen their campus as their Term 3 ended by June 2.
As well as planning for the start of term 1, international schools are looking at ways to make the most out of the summer holidays. Now that restrictions have been relaxed, several schools are holding summer camps on campus (open to only their students) offering both fun and educational activities.
Clair Harrington-Wilcox, head of junior school at Tanglin, said: “As we approach the long summer holidays, it is more important than usual to keep our younger students engaged with learning, in contact with their peers, and to give parents a much needed break.
Tanglin is offering a free three-week TTS Foundation Summer Programme for Infant, Junior and Senior students.
"For Infant children, the activities will support all of their learning through a fun and creative programme, with an Infant-friendly theme for each week. The Junior programme offers children the opportunity to progress their skills across the curriculum, with the children learning about real-world problems through a range of activities.
“The Senior School is hosting an academically rigorous and engaging programme with sessions designed to support the Tanglin curriculum, including core subjects of science, maths and English as well as the arts and technology.”
Elsewhere, Singapore American School (SAS) is running the SAS Summer Semester Challenge 2020 for its students, which is a six-week programme starting at the end of Term 3, offering courses from writing poetry to cooking, from mountain biking to coding, from learning lab skills to learning a language. UWCSEA has a four-week Together, Active and Well summer programme for its students (K–12), and the school is covering 80% of the total cost. And Invictus International School is running a Chinese Language and Culture Immersion Summer Camp for primary-aged children.