4 pillars for virtual school success – lessons from Wellspring Learning Community who are running their school remotely for the second time.
Mirna Raslan, Principal, Wellspring Learning Community School Lebanon
On the evening of Saturday the 29th of February 2020, the Lebanese Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MEHE) decided to close schools as a preventative measure against the spread of COVID-19 after 7 cases were discovered in the country. For us at Wellspring Learning Community, this meant reverting to our virtual school; a model we adopted during a period of public unrest in Lebanon in October and November of 2019. During these two months, mass protests paralysed the country, leading to sporadic school closures. Back then, we managed to migrate classes to Microsoft Teams with a modified timetable, a customised digital behaviour policy, and a strict attendance verification procedure. We created a solid virtual school model.
On the morning of March 2nd 2020 we reverted to our virtual school setup. Our staff, parents and students knew they had to log in to Microsoft Teams at 8:00 AM to attend classes. Six weeks later, we had an average daily attendance of 98% in grades 6 to 12. Parents rated our readiness to run virtual classes at 4.11/5. Students were attending class and parents were satisfied with our performance.
Running a virtual school was a challenge for everyone at the beginning, especially staff and teachers. I felt drained at the end of every virtual day, but my role as principal required me to support the community and maintain positivity. I believe our rigorous and systematic model made our virtual school a success. This model rests on 4 pillars:
From day zero, we initiated regular, transparent, empathetic and data-driven communication with all stakeholders. We sent weekly letters to parents containing well-being support material, data extracted from the daily running and any new decisions or updates. We conducted daily staff briefings at 7:30 AM before school started and at 2:00 PM after school ended. We held weekly virtual staff meetings to provide a space for reflections on lessons learned or to discuss new initiatives and ideas. I had weekly meetings with the Head of school to keep her updated on our progress. We conducted daily “visits” to virtual classes to check on students and to support the teachers when needed. This constant flow of communication in all directions kept all stakeholders aware of relevant information. It added a human touch to the cold virtual world we were stuck in.
A balanced, effective, empowered, hard-working team made all the difference. We gave every single team member the opportunity to lead in their own area of expertise. We trusted that our staff and teachers were giving their best. We encouraged our staff, supported them when they needed it, and helped each other when we would come across obstacles. This team-work made our operation efficient and purposeful. This network of support brought us closer during times of social distancing.
- Relationship Building
Humane, positive, empathetic connections brought the different stakeholders together. We listened to everyone who had something to say, and received criticism, praise, and ideas. We called parents of absent students either waking them up or realizing that they had technical difficulties logging in. We provided support and recommended coping strategies for our students who struggled. We tried to be as understanding and compassionate as we could. This type of relationship building strengthened the bonds in the community and helped bring parents, staff and students together. It gave us all a sense of proximity.
Regular, unwavering, and consistent follow-up gave the virtual school a serious and authentic feel. Our team of IT experts supported staff and students. They made sure everyone had access to the platform. They made sure all technical issues were solved immediately. Academically, we provided support and daily follow-up to students at risk of failing and their parents to make sure everyone had a fair opportunity to perform up to and even exceed their potential in this environment. We made sure that attendance was recorded every session and parents were contacted immediately when their students were not attending classes. The support staff took on this extra load of work and received buckets of appreciation from parents and students. This type of follow-up embedded within the structure of the virtual school helped the students develop a daily routine that resembles that of a real school.
Our virtual school model was defined by regular communication, strong team-work, consistent follow-up and empathetic relationship building. When asked in a survey, all stakeholders agreed that the main positive aspect of the online school was that “it kept the learning going” and that was exactly what we wanted to do: To keep the learning going!
We are privileged with a solid structure and the needed resources to make this possible. Not all schools have this privilege. However, the access and resources are worthless without a flexible, human, and supportive approach. Without the coming together of our community through purpose, we wouldn’t have adapted a positive learning environment as efficiently and expeditiously as we did. This virtual school not only helped keep learning going, but it was a place where our community members could forget the crises and concentrate on building a better future for our students.