"Dancing on a shifting carpet"

Deputy Headmaster (Academic) Mrs Becky Lovelock provides an insight into the Academic Office during COVID lockdown 2021 and how the many challenges were managed.


“Dancing on a shifting carpet” (with apologies to Leonie Degenhardt and Patrick Duignan) is certainly an apt metaphor for the the experience of the Academic Office during 2021. During the 2021 lockdown, a small number of individuals from the Academic Office continued to work onsite every day, steadfastly dealing with the various challenges thrown their way. They included Mr Bill Raeside (Director Technical Services), Ms Sharon Ditmarsch (Director of Timetables and Fixtures), Ms Hayam Murray (Assistant to the Deputy Headmaster Academic), Ms Fiona Taylor (Academic Office, Administrator), Ms Jodie Raitt (Academic Office, Administrative Assistant) and Ms Dimetra Skondas-Silva (Communications and Publications Officer) as well as myself. Herewith follows a brief insight into their activities.

During the June/July holidays of 2021 it became apparent that Greater Sydney was heading towards a second lockdown. The information was drip-fed from the Premier in her daily briefings which swiftly became compulsory viewing, being the place where schools were able to find all the latest information. Shortly after each viewing, urgent googling and trawling of government websites enabled us to locate hastily written guidelines for schools (frequently published in a different place from the last set of guidelines, and often with the date of publication hidden obscurely at the bottom).

Initially, it was thought that we would be returning onsite but with social distancing, and so we got out the famous “Black and Gold” timetable from 2020 which allowed for staggered recess and lunch, and re-timetabled to minimise movement around the site.

As the third week of the holidays approached, it became apparent that we would be returning to online learning, and so reviewed the documents and protocols from 2020, along with the revision notes of “lessons learned”, and Zoom was launched again.

The first few weeks went swimmingly, with masters having made adjustments from the first time round in 2020. As time went on, however, it became apparent just how exhausting sitting in front of a computer all day was for everyone, masters and pupils alike. Thus the idea of screen-free days and long weekends was introduced for everyone’s sanity. Some departments found that they needed materials that could not be distributed electronically, and so the first bulk mailing was organised for subjects such as Geography.

One of the bulk mailings of resource packages ready to be shipped out to boys

The Trial Examinations and Form V Annual Examinations brought their own challenges, as we had learnt from the previous year just how difficult it was to run valid assessments online. In particular, consulting with other schools of a similar highly academic and competitive ilk (such as selective high schools) we found that they adopted the same policy as us, using those examinations online for practice rather than adapting them, to ensure that the HSC examinations would not be the first time our pupils sat a three hour examination. However, there were many logistical problems for the Academic Office in getting the papers submitted, marked and processed.

Firstly, we needed to ensure that boys knew how to submit their papers online so that those papers could be marked in the usual manner. Boys completed online “tests” of submitting pages with just their name and NESA numbers written on them for checking. Secondly, once papers were submitted they needed to be marked, then scanned in and returned.

Teams were brought in to print off the papers for masters and we operated a “click and collect” marking service from the school carpark, with papers then dropped back, scanned in and uploaded in order to return to the boys.

As the end of Term III approached, the messaging from the government implied that we would still be online at the start of Term IV (although for how long was not clear). We therefore began a mammoth task of putting together a package of resources that boys would need to remain online early in Term IV. We took the opportunity to include a few items to cheer everyone up, and the Academic Office had a bit of fun researching items that might make boys smile.

The logistics of putting all those packages together for around a thousand boys was significant. Fortunately, without boys onsite, we were able to take over a number of rooms and our magnificent team of casual staff (who we referred to as “Santa’s little helpers”) came onsite and helped stuff envelopes.

The care packs being assembled and ready for packaging

A slip sheet detailing the contents of the care packs that were sent to boys

As the information about a return to onsite learning was drip-fed to us via the news media, we began the complex process of planning for the boys’ return, including retimetabling Form VI (who would usually have left by this point in the year), re-timetabling rooming for staff to minimise mixing, and reintroducing the staggered timetable. Just to keep us on our toes, the government kept changing its mind, although they thoughtfully continued to let us know by publishing news media articles late the night before details were announced by the Premier. They like to check we’re awake and operating.

Whilst we initially thought the Forms I-IV examinations would run online, as the carpet shifted it became apparent they would need to be run onsite, but in small venues, and so the whole site needed re-timetabling again. In addition, an HSC zone was set up to ensure that in the event of any live COVID-19 case onsite, we would minimise the effect on the HSC, making it a completely separate area (the JVH and lower level of the Palladium) and inaccessible to the rest of the school. This again meant re-timetabling and re-rooming.

Fortunately, we got through Term IV without a live COVID-19 case, the HSC examinations were completed successfully, and at the time of writing, the timetable is ready to roll for 2022. We await the next curveball.