The enduring impact of Covid-19 means education across the world remains in flux. In most countries many children are not receiving their normal school experience, and until the virus is stabilised and brought under control that’s likely to remain the case.
However, the welcome news that pupils can begin returning to school in England on Monday, definitely offers us all hope. The government’s “roadmap” for navigating a way out of the restrictions we all face does at least mean there is some light at the end of the tunnel, and we can slowly begin the journey back to some sort of normality.
But for the time being, any return to “normal” is still some way off, and measures to ensure students and staff in our boarding schools are as safe as they can possibly be will remain in place and continue to be the number one priority.
At this point though, it does feel like a good time to reflect; an opportunity to look back over the 12 months since this situation began and look at what the pandemic has taught us about the boarding sector. And where do we currently sit? Are boarding schools weakened by Covid or are there any positives to promote?
“There are very strong positives worth communicating whether you are running a boarding school in the south of England or on top of a Swiss mountain.”
In my view, there are two very strong positives worth capturing and communicating whether you are running a boarding school in the south of England or on top of a Swiss mountain. First, during autumn 2020, when many countries attempted to operate some sort of regular school term, the structured environment of boarding proved one of the safest spaces within education.
We all saw the difficulties countries faced in keeping infection rates low among children and staff in day environments with large movements of people in and out of school each day. This resulted in many schools having to reduce capacity in classrooms and common rooms as new cases occurred, making it very hard for administrators and parents to establish any sort of continuity or rhythm.
Boarding schools by contrast, or the boarding elements of boarding/day schools, were far more stable. While there is little definitive data to review, reports to BSA suggested that there were fewer Covid cases in boarding houses and very few incidences of them having to be routinely closed or boarders sent home.
“It is much simpler to manage movement around, in and out of a boarding house than in an open day school environment.”
This relative “success” was not down to some sort of boarding magic or special resilience by boarding students to Covid, but rather that it is much simpler to manage movement around, in and out of a boarding house than in an open day school environment. So when there were cases or suspected cases in boarding schools, this meant that staff could move at speed to contain them.
The second positive to promote is the nature of the boarding experience itself, because there are already many in education signalling the virtues of online learning for students and whether it may have a permanent post-pandemic role to play.
Necessity as we know is the mother of invention and the way schools have adapted to provide learning online for students has indeed been impressive. But autumn 2020 again showed that while in-class teaching and learning can, to a certain extent, be replicated by Zoom or Teams, the experience of boarding house life cannot.
“We should not be afraid to broadcast the message that boarding is safe.”
The main benefit of a boarding education is not exam grades and there are certainly easier and cheaper ways to get these if that is your main motivation. Boarding is about community, living with and supporting others, learning to work as a team, giving and taking, and being part of something much larger and important than you as an individual.
These attributes were hallmarks of boarding way before Covid came along and will continue to endure long after it has retreated, and so remain some of the strongest positives to promote about boarding.
Using the phrase “safe and sound” is perhaps risky in the middle of a global health crisis, but it does not mean it’s wrong to apply to it boarding. In my view, boarding is just that, and we should not be afraid to broadcast that message.