Nick Baguley interviews two teachers about their experiences of returning to the classroom after the Covid-19 lockdown, and finds out how they made this possible.
The Covid-19 pandemic has had a major impact on nearly every aspect of life – including, of course, the education sector. Almost overnight, schools, colleges, universities, examination centres and English language institutes the world over were forced to close, with most of them quickly moving from face-to-face operations to online delivery. However, as infection rates have fallen, governments have started to ease lockdown restrictions and are looking to re-open key service providers. Curious to find out about how educational institutions might approach this return to face-to-face delivery, I decided to speak with two colleagues who are already back in the classroom. Neil McCutcheon is a freelance CELTA and Delta tutor, based in Scotland, and Hoaida Khattab works as a Compliance and Logistics Manager in the Examinations Department at the British Council in Egypt. During this interview, they shared some of their experiences with me.
So, Neil and Hoaida, when exactly did your respective institutions close during the Covid-19 pandemic?
NM The school in Lyon, France, where I often work as a teacher trainer for an organisation called the ELT Hub, closed at the end of March, and we then cancelled the face-to-face four-week CELTA course scheduled for April.
HK The British Council in Egypt closed in mid-March. My team was in the middle of preparing for a range of summer school examinations throughout Cairo and Alexandria, but these were immediately cancelled, as all our partner premises also had to shut down.
What led to your schools re-opening in June?
NM The ELT Hub decided quite quickly not to run a fully online CELTA programme. We continued to promote the face-to-face option, telling applicants that we would re-open once the authorities gave the go-ahead. France started to lift lockdown measures in mid-May, so we felt it was reasonable to go for a June face-to-face CELTA, by which time most bars, cafés and shops in the country were open again.
HK The British Council in Egypt was keen to re-open its doors to a limited number of customers once it was deemed safe to do so. We had many students waiting to do examinations, such as the supervised computer-delivered IELTS test and the IELTS speaking skills exam. However, the decision to return wasn’t taken lightly, and involved in-depth discussions between our Country Director, the Ministry of Education in Egypt and British Council regional management based in the UAE.
How did you both feel about returning to face-to-face delivery?
NM Absolutely fantastic! I’d been doing some online teaching, but I really wanted to get back to face-to-face training, which is really my thing. I had no fears about going back at all.
HK To be honest with you, I was so excited. I’m a people-oriented person, and I’d really missed talking face-to-face with my colleagues and our exams candidates.
Tell me about some of the practical things you did to get the premises ready for a return to face-to-face delivery.
NM We were fortunate in that we had access to some very large rooms in the local Chamber of Commerce building. Teachers washed their hands using disinfectant on entering the building and, once inside, had to wear a face mask the whole time. The whole building was arranged so you had to go up one set of stairs and down another, in one direction only. In every room, the chairs were spaced apart to meet social distancing regulations, with notices on the walls reminding people where they could and could not sit. Teachers were only allowed to use the photocopier one at a time, as we wanted to avoid groups of people crowding around the machine sharing books and papers. During training sessions, we didn’t provide any handouts – information was either displayed electronically in class or we sent emails with attachments. We asked the teachers to bring in their own laptops to avoid using communal computer equipment. They also brought in their own stationery, food and drink. The Chamber of Commerce had produced a set of guidelines which we sent to the teachers before the CELTA started. In the course welcome email, we outlined the necessary procedures and dealt with any questions. And on the first morning, we went through all the guidelines again with the participants. We had to avoid using some well-known classroom activities where the students mingle or are asked to throw a ball to each other (they just kicked the ball to one another instead!). I also nominated one of my colleagues to be the Covid-19 monitor – she ensured that throughout the four-week course everyone was adhering to the rules. There were sanitisers in every classroom, at all the entrances and on each coffee machine. Cleaners came in at the end of the day to wipe down all the surfaces too.
HK We spent three weeks preparing for the re-opening on 15th June. My team worked closely with our security manager to ensure compliance with Egyptian government advice and standards. Everyone had their temperature checked and was expected to put on a face mask before entering the building. We also encouraged our customers to wear gloves, although those attending in order to complete computer-based examinations preferred not to as it made using a keyboard more difficult. To limit the number of people inside at any one time, we staggered customer entry times and relied on existing examination department staff to work as invigilators, rather than employing a lot of freelancers. Movement around the building was strictly controlled. Exam candidates were taken to a large waiting room, where their temperature was again checked, and they signed a disclaimer. They were then led to a second room to give fingerprints and have their photo taken. Having left all their belongings in this room, the candidates were led to their examination room, where we had a maximum of six people, to ensure social distancing. Candidates brought their own water, pens and paper. We supplied additional stationery and face masks on request, which the candidates then took home. We provided hand sanitiser in every room, and all furniture, surfaces and computer equipment was cleaned by specially-trained staff between examinations. We had pop-up stands in all communal areas, and posters in every room reminding customers of all the necessary procedures.
What was the reaction of your customers and colleagues on returning to the building?
NM Everyone was very understanding and adhered to the guidelines throughout. Wearing face masks did create a bit of a barrier, making the development of rapport more difficult, and teachers had to come up with alternative ways to focus on pronunciation. After a week of the course, some teachers bought visors, which made communication in the classroom slightly easier.
HM Our customers were very mature and responsible. They could see the steps we’d taken to re-open the building and were very appreciative. In the last month, we’ve welcomed around 500 candidates back to the centre in Cairo, and last weekend we re-opened our school in Alexandria for a small number of paper-based examinations.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give those in the education sector as they prepare to go back to face-to-face delivery?
NM The most important thing for us, in purely practical terms, was having access to large rooms to meet social distancing regulations. Emotionally, I feel that people need to accept that there’s an element of risk, but if you cover your face, wash your hands regularly and observe all the other guidelines, then the chances of contracting the virus are greatly reduced. Once someone has signed up to do a four-week, intensive, face-to-face teacher training course like the CELTA, they should try to enjoy the course, knowing that everything possible has been done to create a safe and supportive learning environment.
HK As you prepare to re-open, put yourself in the shoes of all the key stakeholders. Everyone wants to feel safe and secure as they enter any building for the first time after the pandemic, so do all you can to put them at ease, both in terms of the physical environment and emotional support.