With many overseas and interstate students unable to return home during lockdown periods and when borders slammed shut, boarding houses and their tireless staff stepped in as pseudo parents to support the charges. Additionally, although the past year has been difficult for many boarders, there have been positives as well.
CEO of the Australian Boarding Schools’ Association Richard Stokes says schools have been remarkably flexible during the pandemic. For instance, rather than attend Dawn Services together, at some schools, kids shared photos of their Anzac Day celebrations at home with their classmates and teachers so they could experience this important day as a community.
A positive has been the high hygiene standards introduced as a result of COVID, which has seen a remarkable reduction in other common illnesses that routinely rip through boarding houses with kids at close quarters.
We learned a better way of looking after ourselves. So the use of hand sanitiser and social distancing will continue.Richard Stokes, CEO of the Australian Boarding Schools’ Association
Presbyterian Ladies College Sydney director of boarding Pauline Turner explains the school’s boarding house remained open during the pandemic except for a few weeks when NSW was in full lockdown. “We were able to have our international students and Year 12 boarders remain at school and continue with face-to-face learning through this time.”
Turner says boarders got creative during lockdown to stay connected. For instance, they nominated a different theme for their Instagram feed each week such as pets at school, room with a view or baking. So although they were at home, they were still able to stay in touch.
She’s particularly impressed with the resilience of the school’s international students. “They have stayed on task and continue to manage their lives as normal. I know they are finding the lack of clarity regarding border closures and travel restrictions for the remainder of 2021 difficult to process and want to get home at the end of the year.”
Interestingly, PLC Sydney principal Paul Burgis happened to be in Wuhan in late January 2020 assisting the Wuhan Australia School with professional development when COVID first captured headlines. “I was grateful to receive advice very early in 2020 from medical professionals with a link to China regarding the possible severity of the virus. PLC Sydney was well prepared to move online, having bought cameras for every room in the college and planned for a worst-case scenario.”
PLC Sydney was well prepared to move online, having bought cameras for every room in the college and planned for a worst-case scenario.Dr Paul Burgis happened to be in Wuhan in late January 2020
Melbourne Girls Grammar School principal Toni Meath explains parents had to make the difficult decision to uproot their children’s lives or take a wait and see approach at the start of lockdowns in early 2020.
“We were glad to be able to provide assurance that those who chose to stay with us knew there would be a consistency and continuity of their studies and that life as they knew it would remain, while the world around them seemingly changed daily.
“We realise that, as a boarder, you are not always making decisions for yourself in the same way you would in your own home. So we make every effort to recreate a home environment through activities like exploring Melbourne city at the weekends as well as ensuring we are always on hand to support study and extra-curricular learning activities to create an holistic environment and instil a sense of agency and independence in our Grammarians.”
We realise that, as a boarder, you are not always making decisions for yourself in the same way you would in your own home. So we make every effort to recreate a home environment...Toni Meath, Principal, Melbourne Girls Grammar School
The care of overseas students was also a priority at Sydney’s St Catherine’s. Given the uncertainty and concerns around the pandemic, at the beginning of first term 2020, 16 overseas boarding girls moved to nearby modern, serviced apartments at Bondi Junction with two staff, one with a nursing background. Local and regional boarders returned home. While the boarding house remained closed for first term, its kitchen made and delivered meals to the apartments each day, along with textbooks and anything else the girls needed.
“During the school day the girls connected with their classes remotely and stayed close to the greater school community through competitions and other online activities. The girls rose to the challenge and supported one other, even using the time to learn to cook,” says director of boarding Rebecca Herbert.
“Several overseas students continue to work remotely – their focus and commitment to working hard, while remaining connected to the school community, is outstanding,” she says.
Some of the girls even moved to their guardians’ home during school holidays. The school also offered to open the boarding house during the holidays, with several girls choosing to return to the boarding house; their home away from home.
The benefits for the overseas girls of being together is that they are experiencing the same issues such as homesickness...but together they mentor, support and understand each other’s concerns and their situation.Rebecca Herbert, Director of Boarding, St Catherine's Sydney
Says Herbert: “The benefits for the overseas girls of being together is that they are experiencing the same issues such as homesickness – some have not seen their families for well over a year. But together they mentor, support and understand each other’s concerns and their situation. They have developed meaningful relationships and gained confidence, independence, resilience and maturity. The boarding and the teaching staff continue to support and work closely with the girls to ensure they are busy, well and happy.”
Article by: Alexandra Cain, freelance writer
Originally published in the Australian Financial Review, August 2021
Alexandra Cain is a Sydney-based finance journalist who has written for all the best local and global business publications, as well as many banks, businesses and industry associations.