Shut Down

The experience of school closures

An enforced school closure can be sudden and present a range of daunting problems. James McDonald looks at what he learned as a Principal during two periods of crisis, one in Japan and another in Thailand, when he had to close his school.

Global close-down

Around the world school campuses are being closed in the wake of the COVID-19. With schools in many parts of Asia entering into almost two months of e-Learning, and lots of examples of closures elsewhere, there are many lessons to be learned and shared. On a personal level too, I have had either the good or bad fortune of managing two campus closures as a school head: first with the earthquake/tsunami/radiation in Japan in 2011, and then Thailand in 2014 in the wake of a military coup.

Learning from experience

UK and UAE schools are now among the latest to close.  We started e-Learning on March 22.  In order to prepare, my mind went back to the other closures I had experienced in 2011 and 2014 with my teams. What had we learned? What might be helpful for anyone dealing with an enforced closure and dealing with this global crisis in 2020? Here are a number of thoughts,

1. What’s needed in school is needed on-line

If something applies in a ‘bricks and mortar’ school, assume it applies with e-Learning in some form. Everything from tracking attendance, to taking care of the social-emotional needs of staff and students, to creating valid and reliable assessments needs to be thought through. e-Learning is still schooling.

2. Phases

There will be phases to the crisis. What works in week 1 may have diminishing returns by week 5. People’s well-being and emotional state could change over time. Leaders need to ensure there are systems of feedback (e.g. surveys) to make informed adjustments. We all need to be agile, learning and adjusting as we go.

3. New routines and ‘literacies’

e-Learning requires different ‘literacies’ and new classroom routines. Be careful making assumptions that everyone knows what they are doing with technology, as chances are, that teachers, students and parents have varied levels of skills and comfort with technology. Teachers should pretend it’s September 1st again and create new classroom agreements and expectations in the digital space.

4. It depends on the Year Group

e-Learning is a better fit at the higher end of the K-12 continuum.  This may go without saying, but a highly motivated 17-year old will gain more from e-Learning than a highly active 4-year old. There are reasons why many Masters programs can be offered through distance learning and why we don’t have online kindergartens. Also, the more content based the curriculum, the more it lends itself to distance learning; knowledge can be transferred. A K-12 school needs thoughtful developmentally appropriate approaches to e-Learning.

5. Well-being and a new type of crisis

Experience from those already in extended closure situations demonstrate that the well-being of staff, students and parents is positively correlated to the effectiveness of e-Learning. Think of Maslow’s hierarchy. When a crisis hits we slide toward the bottom of the pyramid as we move into survival mode. When I was in Japan during the earthquake in 2011 and we subsequently closed the school for three weeks, there was little talk of e-Learning initially as people were worried about safety. This COVID-19 crisis is different than what I have experienced before: it is a global crisis, and we have this invisible threat coupled with no clear end in sight. This type of situation means stress accumulates over time. We need to help each other navigate through.

6. The opportunity

Think of e-Learning in terms of synchronized vs asynchronized approaches. There are very exciting opportunities to move away from traditional approaches to education, and this is an opportunity for us to release some of the control the adults traditionally have over the time and space for learning. For example, educators need to ask themselves ‘do we replicate a school experience and follow a strict schedule, or try something different?’ And how much screen time is appropriate? The good news is that by the time everything goes back to normal, we should have new capacity for blended learning pedagogy in our schools.

7. The trouble with technology

Technology doesn’t always work. When tech fails in e-Learning, this is like suddenly locking some (or all) of the students out of the classroom. Backup planning is important. Assume too that not all students will have equal access, and different levels of support at home. On a purely technical level, there will be serious stress on different neighborhood’s bandwidth when so many children are all trying to video conference at the same time.

8. Transparency and communication

For better or worse, e-Learning offers a level of transparency into the learning environment: assume there are now parents and school leaders in the “back of every classroom”.

Think of e-Learning & communications as distinct activities. The community needs both done well. (One mantra I picked up from a leader of a school in Vietnam is ‘Content-Connection-Communication’.) By the way, schools are not closed; campuses are closed. The learning must go on. I suggest using this language in communications.

9. Building trust

This is a remarkable trust building opportunity. Two things go into building trust: character and competence. Our leaders and teachers need both and must draw upon and demonstrate both EQ & IQ. Additionally, much of the challenge for leaders will be managing the collective emotions of a community through the different phases of this crisis; done well and the community will be even stronger when this is over.

10. Post-traumatic growth

In 2011 I learned about the concept of Post-Traumatic Growth. While none of us wish to be in the midst of a pandemic, there are opportunities to be seized and novel approaches to teaching and learning are about to be tried out on a global scale. We have opportunities to grow as professionals. Let’s help each other and look to see how we can draw the positive out a situation we find ourselves in.

11. Resources

Finally, here are some other great resources: from my friends in the Oppi community, click on the YouTube link above to view collective advice to educators heading into campus closure; a thoughtful, must read article from the pros at Global Online; some quick and helpful advice about establishing routines for video conferencing from MIT (really important stuff); and last, but not least, a highly recommended resource for teacher self care.


James McDonald is the Managing Director of the Al-Futtaim Education Foundation in Dubai.  Formerly a Senior Vice President at GEMS Education, he has also served as Head of School at both the New International School of Thailand and Yokohama International School.








Feature Image:  by Sandra Schön from Pixabay

Support Images: by Gerd AltmannPeggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay


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