'I broke down every day in the week before they closed the schools'
Nicola Griffiths got a lot more than she expected when she was promoted to acting head shortly before the Covid-19 crisis
When I was asked to be acting head in the summer of 2019 I thought I would be dipping my toe into headship, so I readily accepted. Our headteacher was moving to a new school in January 2020, so I thought it would be a case of steadying the ship from then until our new head's arrival in September.
Little did I know that I would soon be swimming in shark-infested waters with only a few small floats for company.
Initially, things were quite stable and I got into my stride. We survived an ISI compliance inspection, even though the inspectors turned up a week earlier than expected. But the reports of Covid around the country were increasing. I had frequent phone calls from parents asking for advice and was on the phone constantly to the school’s health and safety consultant and to the hotline number of Public Health England.
In the two weeks before lockdown I arranged daily meetings, which then increased to twice-daily SLT meetings. We had our lunch together in my office to discuss how we would manage the school and what communications needed to be send out. To say this was a significant amount of work was an understatement, but we worked together to make sure we were being as open as we could be with our parents.
"It took careful management to quell the rumour that there was a case in the school"
Communications to pupils, parents and other stakeholders increased in frequency and in detail. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the rapid increase in Covid cases, it was not long before local rumours began that there was a case in the school, principally because of our international boarders.
It took careful management to quell this rumour, which I managed to do, working with the very able director of marketing and communications. As guidance developed on self-isolation for the vulnerable I decided I needed to contact all staff regarding their medical vulnerabilities. Luckily, there weren’t many, but it was hard to hold it together as I could see the fear in their eyes. I said that they could go home if they wished to. Most did, much to my relief. I was determined there was not going to be any incident “on my watch”.
The prospect of school closures were the next challenge – they had already shut in other European countries and we could be next. How were we going to ensure learning when pupils were not in school? We had never organised anything like this before and we had about a week and half to get it organised. After seeing the director of computing and head of e- learning, we developed a plan using Microsoft Teams.
During this time, it also became clear that safeguarding would be an issue, so the assistant head of pastoral launched into writing various appendices for policies and rules for engaging in remote learning. By this point, death rates were rising and I really felt as though things were out of control. There was no sign of schools closing and the news was getting more macabre.
"The school atmosphere was tense; parental phone calls increased and more pupils were absent."
I am not ashamed to say but I broke down every day in the last week. Despite having strong plans in place, the school atmosphere was tense; parental phone calls increased and more and more pupils were not coming into school as they did not feel safe, despite all our measures.
Alongside the challenge of managing Covid, there was still the day to day management of the school, which involved dealing with two serious pupil misdemeanours. It was at this point, with the pandemic continuing to worsen that I really felt that we were about to sink. We kept open until the state schools closed and I had heard from various contacts that our local competitors were also on tenterhooks waiting to shut. The day before we closed, I went to do some photocopying for a remote lesson (I teach Year 9 biology). Within five minutes of starting, my scarf and my dress were soaked in sweat and I felt really hot. I rushed down stairs and asked the nurse to take my temperature.
Her reply was “it’s quite a bit higher than normal” at which point she gave me a knowing look. Did I have Covid? Was I going to give it to pupils and staff? I decided at that point to grab my stuff and drive home, letting my PA and the SLT members I could find know that I had to go home.
I was not in school the day we closed, I still had a temperature. A few days later I was really poorly with a tight chest, a very high temperature and I was in to bed breathing shallowly and struggling for breathe. Did I have Covid? To this day I do not know because there was no testing but I had all the hallmark symptoms, including the lack of taste.
"I had a tight chest, a very high temperature and I was struggling for breath. Did I have Covid?"
Despite enduring all of this, things didn’t get any easier. Over lockdown, remote teaching continued and it went very well. When I was at home working, I spent nearly every day on the phone to my director of finance, who became my “wing woman”. We were in constant communication as the proprietor of the school had decided not to give a concession on the school fees and, as a result, I had a full inbox of complaints. Together, the director of finance and I manage to persuade the proprietor to give a small concession, which did help, however the communications increased as we had to respond to every complaint.
Over the summer, other challenges kept coming: the announcement that teachers had to generate GCSE and A level grades, that children of key workers were allowed to come into school, the school was allowed to open to specific year groups in the Prep School and then the Senior School and so on.
The work was relentless, but the teachers continued to teach excellent lessons. We even had the “extras”; photography and sport challenges, virtual prize givings and even a virtual sports day. I am so, so grateful that I had totally committed teachers who genuinely wanted to do the best by their pupils. Equally, the pupils surprised me; they were really eager and ready to work for every timetabled lesson. Heads of department and SLT also worked relentlessly generating exam grades by analysing student performance and the historical trends within the school.
Looking back, I cannot believe we managed to do what we did and I am immensely proud of everyone in my school. At my final assembly, I said thank you to all staff and pupils and I remember having a huge lump in my throat. I had finally reached the end and nothing terrible had happened “on my watch”.
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