Connecting a Key To Boarding Experience

Beating the coronavirus lockdown required new ways of helping the school community stay in touch.

For many school communities, students returning to classrooms and an end to home learning has brought a sense of relief. St Catherine’s School, in Melbourne’s east, is seizing this transition as an opportunity to reflect on what they achieved, and to consider how best to move forward.

A prep-to-Year 12 school with boarders and an Early Learning Centre, the past months have been a practice in adaptability, communication and community, with St Catherine’s director of boarding, Sue Collister, praising the many ways in which students and staff alike rose to the occasion.

“It’s amazing how adaptable people are to change,” says Collister. “I think we can look back on this period and be very proud.”

Recognising the coronavirus crisis was rapidly evolving and that they’d be facing additional challenges as a boarding school, St Catherine’s began testing online learning methods and altering curriculums where necessary before receiving the official instruction to close their doors.

‘It’s amazing how adaptable people are to change. I think we can look back on this period and be very proud.’ Sue Collister

Collister says communication was key in providing confidence and in extending support to families, with St Catherine’s seeking feedback from the broader school community and adjusting programs accordingly.

“As teachers, our role is to model behaviours,” says Collister. “To keep calm, to show we were learning, too; that this was a journey we were in together. Our teachers have been absolutely fantastic. I can’t speak more highly of the support they offered.”

Meanwhile, finding safe, secure housing was paramount for interstate and international students unable to return home immediately as the community moved into COVID-19 lockdown.

“It was such a big priority to ensure everyone had somewhere safe to go,” says Collister. “We made sure our international students were in safe housing. We conducted reference checks; visited the housing [to ensure its suitability]. “Things changed very quickly. We got many of the girls home in one week but the biggest thing is that we adapted as the situation evolved.”

Home learning came with big mental adjustments for boarders, for whom returning home typically marks holidays and an end to studying. The program was carefully designed to maintain structure and keep students connected to one another, despite the distance.

“The girls are very collegiate… Connection is a big part of the boarding experience.We knew how important it was to maintain this during isolation. One way a student described it to me was, ‘We may be separated, but we’re still connected’.”

Beyond academics, this connection came in the form of maintained extracurriculars where possible, a regular supervised homework hour and a range of evening activities for boarders – from distanced birthday celebrations to geography challenges and baby photo quizzes.

“I’m really proud of how our students handled the change,” Collister says. “They really took it in their stride.”

While challenges for some international students remain, Collister admits that, with the school re-opened, there’s nothing quite like seeing friends and teachers face-to-face.

“Everyone was very excited to see each other,” Collister says. “They really missed their friends and the social interaction of being in a school environment. It’s really lovely to be back.”

The Age, Sunday 21 June

Megan Whitfield

Up next