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Head of Virtual School reflects on two years of covid

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More than two years on since the first coronavirus lockdown in March 2020, it’s easy to forget the pace of change back then.

One minute, children and young people were at school, the next, most were being taught remotely at home. And that continued for months.

Of course schools in Devon stayed open throughout, but only for pupils considered vulnerable and children of key workers.

The challenge then, for pupils, parents and teachers, was keeping young people engaged, and while acknowledging that these were exceptional times, trying to maintain a learning routine via laptops and tablets.

But there were among them hundreds of young people in Devon for whom school, and their education generally, was already difficult prior to coronavirus; children who were no longer living with their birth families, and who were in the care of the local authority.

How did they cope with their education during the pandemic, and how did Devon County Council and schools make sure that their learning didn’t slip even further behind?

There are 822 children in care in Devon, a total that increased over the duration of the pandemic.  650 of those are of school age – 3 to 18 years old.

Wendy Ohlson is Devon’s Headteacher of the ‘Virtual School’.

“These are children and young people who have experienced anything from neglect, parental mental health, parental addiction, lack of parental capacity, emotional, physical or sexual abuse, family bereavement, or more. 

“All circumstances bring great pain and loss for a child that has lasting effects on their life.

“Leaving your family, whatever the circumstances, and moving to a foster family in itself is enormous for a child and many also have to move school and away from familiar areas.

“It’s hard to imagine the trauma experienced by our children as they try to establish a new life with a new family, start a new school and make new friends.”

So, for children in care, whose educational outcomes already fell below that of all children, extra consideration was needed at the onset of lockdown to make sure these young people did not slip even further behind in their education.

Children in care attend school like everyone else.  Each school in Devon has designated teachers who are specially trained, and they know which children are in the care of the local authority.  They understand that those children have had trauma in their lives, and that they need additional support around them.

Devon’s ‘Virtual School’ describes the way schools work with young people in care, their carers, and the council’s Virtual Schools team, to build support around the child’s educational needs so that they have every opportunity to do well and thrive at school.  If a child has needed to change schools because they’ve come into care, that wrap-around support helps their transition.

“Our job is to do all we can to unlock their potential by being aspirational and provide the opportunities for every child to achieve their best possible outcomes,” says Wendy.

But Wendy’s team needed to do more in March 2020, as the country moved into lockdown.

They supplied every child in care with a laptop and funded online learning to supplement the lessons from school.

They worked closely with social care workers and foster carers during lockdown to encourage children in care to attend school, to access face to face teaching.

“Many of our children really thrived during this time, and were slightly disappointed when all children returned to the classroom, as they had enjoyed the small classes and close knit learning environment.”

They also worked closely with the Educational Psychology team to provide schools with advice, guidance and materials to help support children, build resilience and strategies to cope with isolation and anxiety.

They held an online conference for schools, ‘Putting well-being at the heart of your school’, to help schools support children, and to support staff so that they could be there for the children.

“Our schools were amazing,” says Wendy.

“The quality of virtual learning was exceptional, as was the pastoral support and daily safeguarding checks provided.

“We had so many examples of `going the extra mile` for our children:

“A teaching assistant zoom-calling a six year old autistic child in her class every day to read her a story.

“Resources being posted to a child with profound learning needs to support the family to continue the education programme.

“A teaching assistant teaching a child for an hour a day in the child`s garage to maintain contact.

“Games, books and magazines being delivered to children at home, and many more examples.

“We bought scooters, ukuleles and educational games to help with lockdown activities.

“We gave every child in care a £30 book token and we ran four weeks of fully funded outdoor summer activities to help children have fun, enjoy the outdoors and give carers a rest.”

But it is the relationships that were already strong, and that grew stronger during lockdown, that define this time.

“Relationships are key to a child’s success in school,” says Wendy. 

“Children thrive when they feel they belong and have trusted adults around them who they can rely on.

“During coronavirus, these relationships were even more vital to maintaining children’s connection with the familiarity of school that is so important to them.

“Often the key adult in a school is the reason for the child’s success, and through their patience, kindness and relentless optimism we see fantastic transformation.”

Today, more than two years on from the first lockdown, schools are still working exceptionally hard, and coronavirus is still a challenge. 

“As we pass the second year anniversary since that first lockdown, I would like to reflect on how much has been done in schools, to support children in care especially,” says Wendy.

“These have been difficult times, but they have also been a time where relationships have grown closer.

“I would like to thank all of those teachers, those carers, those social workers and other professionals who form our Virtual School. 

“But most of all, I want to thank the hundreds of children in care in Devon for the brilliant, bright and unique individuals they are, and who have shown their resilience and maturity as they’ve worked through this pandemic.

“Each day I’m proud of our team and proud of the children in care who we are privileged to work with. 

“We will continue to do our very best to support all of our children in care as they develop through their education and into young adulthood.”