Boarding in a Pandemic

Jenny Dwyer discusses the success stories of boarding schools in their adapting to the ‘new normal’.

I think we can all agree that 2020 was an extraordinary year! At the time of writing pupils have returned to school for the Summer Term and there are glimmers of hope for a successful end to the academic year. As a parent, and even though the fear and uncertainty of the pandemic seem to be calming, it almost seems counter intuitive to consider not having your children with you. However, boarding schools have worked amazingly hard to ensure that their pupils have not just been safe, but have had the opportunities to thrive educationally, to continue with their sport and arts, and to enjoy their activities in the company of their friends. The adaptation of Boarding Schools to the new normal has been a real success story.

There are many different types of boarding schools and each has had to adapt in its own way to the challenges of safety. Supported by the Boarding Schools Association and its Covid charter, measures have been put in place to reduce the risk of outbreaks and to ensure the safety of pupils and staff.

Many schools have banned all but essential visitors and ensured that students do not move unnecessarily around the school. Even the systems for laundry have been adapted and of course hand sanitizer has been placed around the schools and houses. Meals have been staggered- some schools are lucky enough to have in-house dining whilst others have been taking photos to ensure they know who was sitting where if an outbreak occurred. A small number of schools have bought Covid testing machines for staff and pupils so they can keep on top of any issues. Health centres, staffed with qualified professionals have been able to deal with issues as they have arisen.

Bubbles have been developed in order to minimise isolations if anyone caught the virus and schools have adapted their boarding structures where necessary. A number of schools have temporarily moved from a vertical system (with pupils in a number of different year groups) to a horizontal system where whole year groups have stayed in one house. This has been fantastic for ensuring that pupils have the opportunity to socialise with their year as well as continuing to study with them.

I have always been a great believer in the place Boarding has in the development of friendships and boarding pupils have been lucky to spend so much time with their peers when other students were in lockdown. Boarding staff are experts in pastoral care and in creating a warm, welcoming and inclusive environments and the opportunity to share experiences has been really welcome by pupils. From what to expect in the next set of examinations to how to deal with the next set of lockdown rules, the opportunity to share concerns has been really beneficial. House staff have been backed up by other colleagues, school nurses and health professionals and senior team to ensure that pupils have been cared for and supported.

There has been greater communication with parents and schools have wanted to make sure that parents, staff and pupils have worked together for the benefit of the pupils’ well being.

Schools where pupils have stayed over the weekend have been very imaginative with activities. Despite the cancellation of interschool sports fixtures, schools have ensured that pupils have had the opportunity to stay fit and to improve their sporting skills through mini tournaments and participation in a wider range of activities. Prep school boarders, for example, have been engaged in craft activities, tree climbing competitions and sporting challenges.

Senior school pupils, missing the socialising of normal life have been able to have silent discos, masked balls and pamper nights within their bubble. Speakers have been arranged, either virtually or socially distanced and mock university interviews have taken place. Boarding pupils certainly have not been board!

And finally, boarding schools have supported parents and pupils in devising strategies for pupils to be able to return home for weekends, half terms or holidays. Despite the cancellation of a number of celebrations there are so many imaginative ways that schools have managed on line concerts, plays and carol services.

I have always been impressed by the dedication of boarding staff and the way they go over and above in the care for their pupils. Never has this been more apparent than in the way boarding schools have risen to the challenges of COVID and have put the safety and well being of their pupils at the heart of everything they have done. Parents can be reassured that their children will thrive in a culture of care, safety and innovation.


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