Everything else.. Teaching and Learning amidst COVID-19 Conquered by the Overseas School of Colombo

Teaching and Learning amidst COVID-19 Conquered by the Overseas School of Colombo

2021 Jan 15

The world as we know has changed. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the mechanisms of every possible domain including education, which has been prominently digitised. With this indefinite period of transformation, parents and children are told to sit in front of their computers and go with the flow, and we wonder, “now what?”

“Effective teaching is effective teaching that can happen anywhere.”

Educators in all levels of academia have been immensely challenged during the pandemic. An educator’s role is often greatly overlooked. But they are as significant as the essential workers themselves.

Why are educators considered “essential workers”?

Educators are at the front line of securing an education continuum for students, despite how the world looks like now. Understanding and working with the unique needs and abilities, socio-cultural backgrounds, learning capacities of students is a challenge with or without a pandemic. Teachers went through an entire transformation in their working conditions, globally.

For most, the change has been overnight.

It was a task highly demanding of traditional teaching environments. Novel teaching strategies were adapted by institutions, where teachers had greater responsibility in its successful execution. They are an undeniable driving force behind the students to thrive socially, emotionally and intellectually amidst this pandemic. The new reality of education demands more and more, and all roads lead to our educators.

The Overseas School of Colombo has risen to this demanding challenge with ease. Whether it’s Distance Learning or your child’s regular learning environment at school, all efforts are directed towards student development. With selflessly dedicated teachers at the forefront of their mission, they lead by example.

The school has served a culturally diverse local and international student population since 1957. 16% of students are Sri Lankan, while other nationalities include, American, British, Australian, Indian and many more. With 63 years of institutional excellence, it is also the oldest international school in Sri Lanka.

Looking Back and Moving Forward

Reflecting on their vision of ‘nurturing and empowering the learning community’, they have turned their motto: ‘Unity in Diversity’, to an apt ‘Unity in Adversity’. The Overseas School of Colombo is no stranger to online learning. Google education and smart class initiatives were implemented by the school, long before the demand rose to prominence. OSC was the first to pioneer in a fully-fledged Distance Learning Plan (DLP) initiative among every other school that followed. The DLP does not compromise on regular student experiences – except they are at home.

The programme is designed to be executed in just 3 days, where students, parents and teachers, will be seamlessly integrated into the DLP. It ensures a smooth transition to a normal academic routine for all grade levels. From academics, the DLP covers extra curricular activities, service-learning activities, philanthropy, student, teacher and parental counselling, advisory and more. The teachers have given it their all, organising concerts, assemblies, and events online to keep their students engaged throughout.

Digitised learning is now the norm.

The Overseas School of Colombo uses a diverse array of technological tools to enhance educational objectives, especially the Distance Learning initiative.

Online learning platforms such as Seesaw, inspire independent learning while being the primary source of communication of the DLP. Investing in what makes the entire teaching and learning continuum efficient, Google Suite, Blogger, Teacher Dashboard, Flipgrid, Screencastify and Zoom are merely some of the platforms used by the school.

A leading IB learning management system (LMS), ManageBac is also a primary platform, mainly for the secondary level – the trusted choice of over 3000 IB World schools. Thus, OSC has not only been prepared for unexpected trials but has always been at the forefront of exemplary instruction.

Inspiring Generations of Holistic Education

The Overseas School of Colombo is authorised by the International Baccalaureate Organisation (IB), and fully accredited by the Council of International Schools, UK (CIS) and Middle State Association of Colleges and Schools (MSA). It is also a full member of the South Asian Inter-Scholastic Association (SAISA) and Near East South Asia Council of Overseas Schools (NESA).

The founders of the school were from diplomatic missions and envisioned academic and personal excellence and a strong commitment to intercultural understanding. OSC’s current Head of School, Dr. Michelle Kleiss is propelled towards the same, embracing core values of community well-being, access to resources, pedagogical excellence and safety. Thus, the school identifies the need for innovative and future-ready education to date.

Their International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum was implemented on the 1st of March 1983. OSC is the only IB World School in Sri Lanka, with a representation of more than 40 nationalities. With 5000 schools offering the IB curriculum, it embodies an inherent enquiry based and student-centred approach.

The Overseas School of Colombo offers Primary and Secondary education with a holistic and systematic approach that supports intellectual growth. Students are given ample opportunity to exercise and excel in and their strengths. They are always encouraged to be inquisitive, communicate effectively, and take risks in their journey at the school.

It Is Safe and It Is Possible

Prioritising the students’ social, emotional and physical health is of utmost importance at OSC. It is a Trauma-Informed School, where the administrators, teachers, staff, and parents are prepared to respond to impacts of traumatic stress.

The staff members are trained in Psychological First Aid—Listen, Protect, Connect (PFA LPC), a five-step crisis response strategy. This was adapted to facilitate the school community, to return to school, stay in school, and resume their teaching and learning. Teachers are well-trained to identify and understand the impact of traumatised students whichever form it may be.

A strict set of protocols are in place, making the school a safe space for students to return and resume their work as usual. However, OSC strives to provide resources for all sorts of requirements, including support groups, global education platforms, communities for online learning and teaching without having to blindly follow a curriculum. The educators and staff are making miracles possible, with the sole intention of encouraging their students to thrive in these uncertain conditions.

We spoke to the Head of School – Dr Michelle Kleiss, to know more about OSC’s commitment to achieving global excellence in education despite existing conditions. The insightful conversation with Dr Kleiss includes the school’s strategies for empowering and nurturing the school community, especially during the pandemic.
How was the situation at the beginning of the pandemic? What was it like for you?

Learning about what other schools were experiencing led us to conduct early planning and design scenarios before the GoSL announced island-wide school closures. We belong to a well-connected network such as the Association for the Advancement of International Education, Council of International Schools, IB World Schools, Near East South Asia Council of Overseas Schools and more. Our planning and preparation began as early as January 2020.

We regularly asked ourselves, if the Government of Sri Lanka closed its schools tomorrow, would we be ready to support all of our students, preschool through Grade 12, in their learning?

As a result, we refined our Distance Learning Plan (DLP), which allowed us to be ready to toggle back and forth between the uncertainty of campus closure and on-campus learning.

Tell us about how you prepared for ‘online education’

OSC is a well-resourced school with very strong technology infrastructure. We have large support IT team led by our Director of Operational and Educational Technology. We provide 1:1 devices for all Preschool to Grade 5 students and professional laptops for all teachers. Students in the Secondary are adept in technology as they have been a part of the Bring Your Own Laptop (BYOL) initiative for several years.

We are invested heavily in technology before the pandemic, and we were already using it seamlessly across the school to support 21st century teaching and learning.

By February 2020 we had finished our DLP Policy and outlined clear responsibilities and roles for teachers, students and parents. We upskilled and ensured our technology licenses and subscriptions were renewed, to prepare our teachers. All efforts were taken so students and parents could be assured we had a plan. When the Government closed schools on March 13th, our teachers were given 3 full days to prepare for the switch.

We knew that consistency and coherency would be the most important features of the DLP.

From our IT Department to our non-teaching support staff, to our teachers and assistants, everyone aided in its successful execution.

What are the challenges you faced in training teachers for online teaching?

We held up-skilling workshops and provided in-house and personalised professional development for the benefit of online teaching and learning. Finding the best software that would meet the needs of our learning community and training the parents in how to use it proved to be challenging.

Supporting our staff’s wellbeing was challenging in the early days when we asked them to focus on students while they couldn’t source food, as the grocery delivery systems were not fully developed. Balancing their personal and professional responsibilities was challenging, but we made sure our staff were supported and cared for each step of the way.

What techniques do the school use to keep students engaged?

Our best structure is our daily student schedule. All students K-12  must be ready to go “to school” by the start of the first period, and in the secondary, that means attending an Advisory Class, where we check in on each person’s wellbeing. We ask them to use their cameras to show their actual work being completed and use the chat room to share ideas. We use digital notebooks and other digital tools to monitor and support students. Games, movement and video-based assessments helped them greatly.

Our Student Governments offer online ‘Spirit Weeks’, and we conduct virtual assemblies and creative ways to communicate understanding such as the use of Padlet, and visual thinking. We also instituted ‘Friday-Be-Well’ days, where students go off the screens and participate in personalised activities that are creative, active and service-oriented.

How are you preparing for re-opening post-pandemic? Prevention and control measures?

We have designed a very thorough set of protocols for reopening. This was supported by our externally hired Medical Advisory Team to ensure all of our mitigation measures were scientific and research-based. We designed a 5 layer-water-repellent face mask for all students and staff and mandated them across our campus. Every classroom has a HEPA Filter ventilation system and fresh air ventilation. We conducted COVID-19 training for all students, staff, and outsourced service employees and increased our janitorial staff across our school. The members of our community are well-informed of all our procedures.

What are the major changes your school had to go through during the pandemic?

One major change was the onboarding process of new students, parents and staff. OSC is well known for its sense of community and we work hard to ensure everyone feels a sense of belonging. However, joining a school online or during a pandemic was emotionally tough for our new students, teachers and families. Our new teachers who came from abroad had arrival delays, and 2 weeks of hotel quarantine, followed by 2 weeks of home self-isolation. They are a resilient bunch of professional educators I am proud to work with.

What changes do you anticipate in future in terms of teaching, learning and extra-curricular activities?

Currently, we offer our full complement of online academic, co-curricular and service projects in our DLP. We have also started our online after school activities, including sports, music, drama, and even our Thursday Service-Learning Programme. Our student service leaders are working in their service groups and our athletes had a virtual conference with other student-athletes across the South Asian Inter-Scholastic Association (SAISA), where Mr. Kumar Sangakkara was our motivational speaker. Our Primary Performing Arts Teacher has already showcased two online musical performances on our Facebook page! The only change I foresee is moving all this back to a face to face setting which we would all look forward to.

How do you recognise the importance of student and teacher counselling? How do you support student and teacher wellbeing during the pandemic?

We have three full-time counsellors, one for each division – primary, middle school and high school. We know that without a healthy heart and mind, learning cannot be optimised. The pandemic period has been stressful, but our Counsellors and Leadership Team have modelled and led the way for our entire school in terms of ensuring that no one is left behind. Connections are the most important and most critical element of the DLP. Everyone needs to feel they are connected. As Head of School, I have organised a weekly online Zoom call with parents from every grade level and our Counselling team have been Zooming with parents collectively and individually to listen to their concerns and or ideas to make our community stronger.

“Our students’ needs are being met in every direction because well-being and wellness are supported through every thread of  fabric in our school.”

A message for parents and guardians of students?

This is an opportunity to build character traits, as well as cognitive flexibility in yourselves and your children! We have been thrown a curveball. Believe in yourselves that you can get through this. Reach out and build your connections. Think of how you can make someone else’s life better and continue to build and develop your empathy. If your child needs to spend a little extra time on the screens these days, well… don’t fret. They cannot be with you all the time – they need another brain at the same age to socialise with.