School term an ‘experiment’, says local principal as children return to school after COVID-19 shutdowns

By Daneka Hill

Schools are starting back, kids are learning to tie their shoelaces again, and teachers are reflecting on what they have learnt in the past two months.

For most schools, the return yesterday was limited – only Prep to Year 2, and years 11 and 12, were approved to return.

But for a select few, class was back on, regardless of year level.

North of Shepparton, Zeerust Primary School’s sole teacher Peter Farrell is responsible for 11 students between the ages of five and 12.

Four are his own grandchildren.

Dr Farrell said when he heard about the staggered school start, he wrote up a list of reasons why it couldn’t be done at Zeerust, called his boss and prepared to present his case.

“Thankfully, the Department of Education was way ahead of us,” Dr Farrell said.

Because of its small size and limited staff, the school was already approved to resume all year levels.

Dr Farrell warned it was far from business as usual.

“The whole term will continue to be an experiment,” he said.

“The cleaning regulations are unbelievable now - we have to wash their hands before fruit break and recess, and if someone coughs or sneezes, we basically have to hose them down in sanitizer.”

“We are going to be better off than most schools since we only have 11 kids who are all mostly related. I can’t imagine how schools with over 100 students will manage.”

At Zeerust, students aren’t allowed to drink from the bubblers, share drink bottles or food, and have been assigned desks.

Dr Farrell’s only help, teacher’s aide Kathy Morrison, assisted by one-on-one video conferencing with younger students during lockdown.

Aside from one student whose internet was “a bit dodgy” at first, Mrs Morrison said all the country kids learnt well at home.

In fact, the person with the worst internet was her.

“It became a running joke, because I live in Kialla Lakes. North Shepparton had better coverage than me,” Mrs Morrison said.

Dr Farrell said kids were learning at three times the speed from home.

“Nearly all our parents really got into it. Some of these kids probably worked harder than they've ever worked in their lives,” he said.

Older kids were completing a week's worth of lessons in 12 hours of video conferencing with their teacher, while younger kids were wrapping up a week's work in nine hours.

“There are things we were doing that we’re trying to keep, like the one-on-one stuff,” Dr Farrell said.

“Now that teachers are used to using this technology, I think schools are going to start doing more.

“I’ve found myself filming science experiments in my laundry at 5 am. My phone has never been rung so much in my life than that first week when parents were trying to figure out how to log their kids on - and I’m going to miss the mute all button.”

Dr Farrell hopes COVID-19 has taught the Department of Education to be creative with technology.

He suggested teachers strong in certain subjects could video-call in and teach classes at Zeerust - giving the principal, teacher and grandfather a break.