Out of Touch documents the unique experiences of Western Australians during the COVID-19 pandemic that hit Australia in early 2020.
Brad Hilliard is the head of middle school at Wesley College. In this interview, Brad shares insight on the way the school community reacted to the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic. Brad reflects on the impact COVID had on teachers, students, and their boarding students, as they pushed back exams and converted to online learning.
Copyright © 2020 Brad Hilliard
This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories and the State Library of Western Australia by the Storyteller. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.
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Biography/History: Funded by the State Library of Western Australia. This collection of stories, documents, experiences of the COVID 19 pandemic that hit Australia in early 2020. The COVID 19 pandemic led to the declaration of a state of emergency in Western Australia on the 16th of March.
WA went into lockdown between the months of March to May, with further restrictions continuing for months after. During this time, events were cancelled, schools shut down and parks became overcrowded. Thousands of individuals, businesses, communities and organizations were severely impacted as they were forced to work from home social distance and book emergency flights.
This collection, produced by the Centre for Stories in Northbridge, Western Australia, explores these unprecedented effects and contributes a record of this remarkable time in history. This interview features Brad Hilliard, head of Middle School at Wesley College.
Brad Hilliard: My name’s Brad Hilliard and I am the head of the middle school at Wesley College, which is a cohead school. From pre-K to year six
and all boys from year 7 to 12. And our middle school is a year 5 to 8 model. So, what happened at Wesley College in our community during COVID? I think we were pretty lucky in terms of the position that we are in, in Western Australia.
We started the year knowing that COVID was something that was a big issue in terms of a world issue and in our planning, we thought we were probably going to go online. So, we had done some online training with our teachers.
We did a little bit of a practice model of it, and then suddenly things got pretty serious and we made the decision to go online and being such a large school because of our boarding schools, where we had a number of different factors that we had to consider in terms of our families needing to go back to the communities that they came from. And we kind of got a sense as well that we needed to close down, too, because our families were starting to make the decision to keep their children home. So, we were at that kind of cusp.
Some schools had made the decision. We weren’t the first school. We certainly weren’t the last school. And our timing was about two weeks before the school holidays. I think because we are an independent school and we’re within an organization, but we make our own decisions.
You know, I’ve got a son at a government school and a black daughter at another independent school, and they certainly did it very differently to how we did it. And I’m looking at the government sector and the Catholic sector as an example.
So, they made decisions as a sector, whereas we made a decision as a school. And so for me, it’s so much easier to be autonomous and make those decisions. And so, I believe that, you know, we had a much better pathway compared to the government schools.
And I my son’s experience was he had work packs and didn’t really have any teacher engagement, whereas we were able to deliver our curriculum for the whole; whole week, all of our lessons were delivered online. So, we were able to make decisions.
And I feel that, as I said a little bit earlier, we weren’t the first school to go online, but we weren’t the last. And we and I felt that we had time as well. And plus, some of our systems that we had in place as well helped.
So, you know, we’ve got what’s called a school box system. And so that’s where all of our communication goes to our parents, all of our programs and learning and yeah, all the communications on there, but also aspect of assessments, digital feedback.
So, we’d all we would already kind of delivering some online capabilities. So that was really easy. When we were online, that kind of continued. So, there were aspects of what we were already doing that were able to deliver, whereas other schools didn’t have those systems in place.
So, some schools did try and use some online delivery, but they didn’t have the other systems that we had. So, I think, you know, it was there was timing, there was a bit of luck now, but there was also good leadership and good communication with different stakeholders in our community.
Yeah, and I feel that overall, it was a reasonably positive experience. So, I think one of the things that’s good about our schools, we’re a really strong community. We pride ourselves on how we do communicate to our different stakeholders.
But I think one of the strengths of our community is because we actually have different stakeholders that are actually in the areas, medicine and whatnot. So, we actually had stakeholders in government, we had stakeholders in medical field. So, we’re actually getting a lot of advice too in terms of making our decisions.
So, every decision that we kind of made, we felt that we were will not rushing into the decisions. I think we’ll very little late night in terms of meeting and talking about what we’re going to do. But I think we were well informed before, before we made decisions and then we communicated it very well and we were careful about how we communicated as well.
So having three sub schools at the school, we would often send different things out all the time in the normal running of a school. But we made a very conscious decision that we would only put out particular things and that was pretty much from the headmaster.
So, the headmaster was putting out bits of information to all our different stakeholders, and the feedback that we got post-COVID was that our community felt really safe, community felt that we, we made good decisions in terms of supporting the students as well.
So, I think there was a huge amount of anxiety anyway in terms of how we felt as people. I mean, the parents, children, we’re all hearing the stories about how it was out of control in other countries. So, I think there was that level of anxiety anyway in terms of, you know, covid’s on its way.
How are we going to cope just as a family unit? And as a school, I mean, you know, being teachers, you know, you’re there for kids, you’re there for children. They’re learning. So, I think there was a bit of anxiety about how we’re going to keep it all together, I suppose.
But the thing that are really remembered through the whole thing is, you know, we as parents were kind of anxious about it, but the children were the children was like this big adventure. So, we talked to the children about, you know, going on, why they couldn’t why they were so excited about, you know, going into this new experience, getting away from school, being locked in home. So, you know, and that’s kind of contagious in a way. And then when we got to online, I think the children really enjoyed aspects of it. But then I think I think it got a bit boring after a period of time because of missing their friends.
And so, we had two weeks before the school holidays, then we had two weeks to have a holiday for our staff. And that was an interesting time in itself because I don’t feel our staff necessarily had that break because they were thinking about like, what are we coming back to?
We’re coming back to this really online world. And the online world was really tough for our teachers. You know, these are teachers. They’re really comfortable in the classroom. They’ve got relationships with their students. They’re really comfortable how they deliver their curriculum, but they’re not delivering it through this really new medium.
And although we had done training, I mean, I felt part of my role as I have a teaching load and I feel like a graduate teacher again, I felt it was really challenging. My very first lesson was like being back at university and one of my worst lessons ever didn’t go to script, and I ended up actually cutting the students off halfway through because I was just going all over the shop and then kind of reengaging with students. So, I think that’s important for me to be part of it too, because that made me get a sense of what the teachers are experiencing.
I think children are a lot more resilient than what we think they are. I think they’re very easy to to change and do things. I think as we get older, we actually we’re less creative. We we’re less open to change where as children are, you know, you can do all sorts of different things with kids and they just go with it. Although online was good for a big chunk of our student population, it wasn’t good for everybody. So, our indigenous students, a lot of the families had a break from school for a big chunk of time.
So it was, you know, three weeks of learning. It felt longer than that for some of those families. I imagine some of our students that need a lot of extra support. I think some of those students found it very difficult.
And for our really young students, it was almost take-home packs and the learning was on the shoulders of the parents. I think year 12 has been a challenging year this year and I think the university sector has been really helpful in reducing the anxiety for a lot of those students because there’s been early entrance to universities.
I’ve really remembered this week too, when our middle school was back in operation, the sense of joy at the school was almost like the beginning of the year, again, when, you know, people have reconnected again and were back at school.
And I know a lot of the families were super excited as well because, you know, they’ve been in a family unit for like five weeks and they were ready for their kids to come back to school. So yeah, there was a sense of relief and a sense of joy and celebration even and even the staff having that connect moment back with it with their students. Biggest positive that’s come out of this is the fact that we were one; one team working on the one issue and we were really united. So as an exact time, we understood that there would be so many different issues.
You know, we talked earlier about, you know, families, teachers with young families, teachers with health issues. We even talked about families that potentially they’re going to lose their jobs. And we were really cognizant of the fact that we didn’t want to lose any enrolment and we’d support families that were going through financial difficulties.
So, we were just we’re really united. And I felt we met so often. We had so many meetings that went late into the night. And I look back and just going, it was an incredible amount of hard work, but it kind of was
because what we actually ended up achieving at the end of it was just a fantastic result because we were able to support the student, support our community, support our staff. And we just did a survey at the end of last term with key stakeholders, with our students, our parents and our staff
and our staff satisfaction levels are so high is really interesting. We’ve had this really challenging time, but our staff morale has been highest it’s ever been. Our parents love us as a as a school. They really see the fact that we’ve lived our values.
But yeah, just; just in terms of how we got through with the online COVID kind of world, I think we did a pretty good job and we’re pretty proud of what we did. So, for me, just going back is, is what can I remember?
It’s just making sure that we’re all united as a team and we and we were really working together to do what’s best for the school and the community. There’s so much to celebrate. So, I mean, how lucky we are.
we’re fortunate to be in Western Australia. We’ve got so many things that we’re able to do that other people aren’t, which is a joy in itself to be part of that, to be we are, you know, as I said, really fortunate to be here in Western Australia.
So yeah, it’s, it’s, it’s a pretty normal year at the moment.
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