Learning from Covid-19 at the International School of Brussels

As schools return to on-site learning, many are taking stock of what the pandemic has taught them. The International School of Brussels is among them.

Self-reflection, peer support and knowledge sharing are significant aspects of the learning process. This is as true for students as it is for the teachers and schools. For all of us, 2020-21 has been a steep and, at times, challenging learning curve.Relocate Global’s Great International Education & Schools’ Fair was delighted to welcome James MacDonald, Director, International School of Brussels and Dr David Willows, Director of Advancement, International School of Brussels, to share with us their learning as educators in the pandemic as students return to their classrooms this month after another session of remote lockdown learning,Relocate Global’s Fiona Murchie joined James MacDonald and Dr David Willows in the conversation about how Covid-19 is changing the future of the International School of Brussels in a webinar that is available to replay.
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Responding to disruption

For international families, the rhythm of the school year is a reassuring constant at what can be a time uncertainty and movement. Yet as we look back on 12 months of the pandemic, we are approaching for a second time disrupted admissions, final examination sessions and all these key transitions that mark the turn of the school year. But are things different this time?“Well, one of the things that we are very pleased to report is that the families are still very much inquiring about the school,” says Dr David Willows, Director of Advancement at the International School of Brussels, a K-12 school based in the leafy outskirts of the Belgian capital on a stunning 40-acre campus that houses four school divisions, a student activities centre, a health and wellbeing centre and an international community centre.“A year ago, I think there was lots of uncertainty about the impact on enrolment of Covid-19 and whether people would simply stop moving to Belgium. It’s clearly not the case.”

School visits in a pandemic

A cornerstone of ISB’s approach to admissions is to help parents understand if the school is a good fit with the family and children as individual learners. Alongside the all-important school visits to soak up the atmosphere and see a school in action, ISB has developed a unique and innovative experiential admissions programme to offer parents and young people a chance to find out more about ISB and decide if it is the school for them.During the pandemic, this has played an even more important role in the ISB admissions process. “One of the things that’s changed in terms of the relationships we have with families right now is that many of them can’t come and visit the school,” says Dr David Willows. “Normally what we’d be doing at this time of year is very busily showing several families every day around the school, letting them see all the resources we have and the beautiful campus set in the middle of forest here on the edge of Brussels.“We’ve had to adapt to do these certain things online, virtually, by establishing resource centres for tours and transitioning that whole work of helping the family learn together whether or not it’s the right school, online.”

Have parents’ priorities changed?

ISB’s admission process helps families understand the (IB) curriculum and programmes it offers and to work out how their child will be as a learner in their school. But over the past 12 months, ISB is finding that parents are looking for more information about prospective schools, as well as a little more flexibility to mitigate the uncertainty of relocation in a pandemic.“We also notice that many families are asking new questions,” says Dr David Willows. “For example, a few years ago they weren’t asking about health and safety protocols and air ventilation systems and so on. Of course, with Covid where it is right now, we have to be prepared to answer those questions and talk to parents about the measures we have in place.“One of the other things I notice about parents is that they are also asking and looking for evidence of our agility in these times,” continues Dr Willows. “They want to know more about how did we transition to remote learning, how successful was that and evidence to show our students were learning through this period.“These are where we have really taken steps to reassure families that we have a very robust system in place and that also we have a committed faculty who have done incredible things to make the experience continuous for so many students.”

Putting parents’ minds at rest

While the pandemic might have curtailed many aspects of the school year, like sports fixtures, theatre performances and end of year celebrations, it did not disrupt already planned events, including welcoming a new Director, James MacDonald. He took up his post in August at a time when the second wave of infections in Belgium was gaining momentum and schools were set to return.“It really was unlike any experience I’ve had in my career,” says James MacDonald, who has worked in schools all over the world, including Japan, Thailand and Dubai. “It’s been surreal and I’m very conscious of the fact that I’ve joined this big community of people, but I haven’t been able to fully experience it.“For example, ISB has the largest sports and performing arts programme anywhere in Belgium, but I have yet to see the students performing apart from on video! We also have this incredibly supportive parent community that I get to meet on Zoom. I can feel the connection there onscreen, but they can’t come on campus. When I speak to alumni, teachers, students and parents about what’s the best thing about the school, they say it’s the community.”

Post-traumatic growth – moving forward positively

It’s a reflection of the strength and commitment of the teaching body, support staff, parents and children and young people that learning continued apace this year. ISB tracks learner progress and what its standardised data showed was “that our score did not drop in those core subject areas when we were delivering it through distance learning,” says James MacDonald. “So that was a really very positive thing and we are really pleased that our students haven’t fallen behind through this and in some ways have learned some resilience.“I don’t want to be too Pollyanna about the consequences and the deaths from Coronavirus, and the sickness that it represents, but at the same time is has also allowed us to grow,” says James MacDonald, who was head of a school in Japan in 2011 when the earthquake and tsunami struck the country.“That was an extremely hard event and a very acute crisis that suddenly came upon us. This is a crisis nonetheless, but it’s a been a long extended one where the stress builds over time. But a term we used in Japan at that time was post-traumatic growth.“Through this we have to decide as people and as organisations where do we go from here? Can we take this post-traumatic growth mindset towards what we are going to do as an organisation and as people?“While this crisis has meant we’ve had to restrict some of the new initiatives we are introducing, it’s has opened the door to an idea about increasing the amount of personalised learning we are able to offer using some of the technology and learning over the last 12 months. This is a really exciting conversation we are engaged in.“As a school that believes in learning and that believes in moving forward, this is really our approach to this crisis. Trying to turn it around a little bit and see it as an opportunity and ask where can we go and how can we do this better for our kids. I’m confident this is something we are going to be able to capture.”

Celebrating the past, present and future at ISB

One thing the coronavirus pandemic can’t change is that this October ISB celebrates its 70th anniversary. By honouring its past and at the same time remaining innovative and future-focused, ISB is continuing to go from strength to the strength.“One of the things that is going to be really important as we look to the future as we come out of Covid-19 is going to be an opportunity to brings lots of our alumni back to campus to celebrate with us both the future and the past,” says David Willows. “I’m always reflecting on is how much our former employees, our former parents and former students and all the alumni community love ISB.“I was looking through just today a survey we recently did with several thousand alumni and some of the comments they were making. Coming from someone from the Class of 1978 – 40-something years ago – ‘ISB was and always will be like a home to me and my family. We will never forget how much we enjoyed this experience.’“I do think for somebody to have that memory and sense of commitment and love for an institution 40 years later probably says a lot about the school. We hear that as well from graduates who are just two or three years out. One of things we notice about this school – many of us work here because we love the place – is that it leaves its mark. It leaves its mark on future generations that years later they look back and they remember something about the chateau, the fields, the theatre, the forest and more than anything the wonderful teachers that had such a transformative impact on them.”

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