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Rotterdam: Navigating new high school hallways

As part of nationwide emergency measures, Dutch high schools recently shut their doors. Sara works at a study centre, which was confronted by the measures and decided to offer its study guidance digitally. She reflects on how students and educators will have to adapt and learn how to navigate yet another set of hallways: "By uniting for a single cause in a time of crisis, we enable our students to continue their education."

It’s the start of 2020 and a bunch of students from the various high schools in the nearby town of Alphen aan den Rijn freely wander the hallways of their schools after the last bell rang, on their way to the study centre they are all attending after regular school hours. All are doing so for different reasons. Some of them joined this past school year, others we have known for years, and many of them we are going to have to let go of after their final exams this upcoming summer, just like every other year.

That’s what we, our relatively small but tight community of mentors, students, parents and tutors like myself, all thought at the start of 2020. Little did we know that this was going to be anything but ‘like every other year’. When the Dutch government announced a set of nationwide emergency measures to slow down the dissemination of the coronavirus and Covid-19 on 15th March, closing all schools of every education level was one of them.

Unsurprisingly, as the high school doors shut, so did ours.

To be quite frank, I felt unsure of what was about to become of the job I had known and loved for the past three years. It was unclear how, or even if, education would be continuing, and I wondered about the students I used to see multiple times every week and about their final tests and exams. On the good side, I wasn’t left in this state for long: my colleagues and I were called to a meeting the next day by our boss, when the doors would open for one last moment before remaining shut for an indefinite time.

With more than 1.5 metres between us, a selection of tutors gathered the next day to openly discuss the possibility of digital education and guidance. A study centre like we had always known, but ‘live and in the air’. It sounded great to me, but where would we start if we wanted to keep control over both the study processes and progressions of more than 45 students? Many ideas were passed in review, such as the availability online platforms, opportunity for interconnectivity, logistics like opening hours, and more. After just a little while, one thing became crystal clear: the study centre, where before many practices were still being executed with pen and paper, was going to go digital.

'The study centre, where before many practices were still being executed with pen and paper, was going to go digital'

Here’s how it went down. Two colleagues who both know their way around with technology proposed the use of Discord, a free software application for text-, video-, and audio communication, which is often utilised by gamers and their communities in order to stay in touch with one another while playing games. Particularly the ability to quickly switch between servers and channels and receiving immediate contact with the people on the other ends proved to be of exceptional worth for our purposes as well. Within thirty hours, the two guys had set up a system completely customised to our study centre’s needs. They had created all the necessary role divisions and channels and verified the latter with test accounts in order to make sure that every person participating in the server had access to the right channels based on their assigned role(s).

In the meantime, I had created an extensive schedule based on colour codes and thematic divisions of high school subjects, linked to the disciplines that individual tutors are specialised in. To make sure that every student would be able to access guidance for any subject on a given day that they were online on our Discord server, I colour coded the schedule such that every individual would be matched with tutors specialised in all the demarcated disciplines during specific time slots. As soon as the guys had explained the workings of Discord to everyone cooperating in this project and my boss and I regulated the communications around all of our new practices towards our colleagues and the students and their parents, we were ready for take-off.

Photo by Sara Haverkamp

Since then, quite a lot of adjustments on our initial digital endeavour have been made. A few days were needed to solve some technical issues and bugs in the system. We had to get all essential external documents in order - for instance those that we used to have physically and now digitally - and we are not there yet. We are moving day by day and week by week, gradually improving and managing changes in the light of a worldwide crisis. For illustration, only this last Tuesday we received the news that the national central exams are cancelled, of which the consequences for high schools and hence also for us are huge. Once again, we will have to adapt and learn how to navigate yet another set of hallways.

'We will have to adapt and learn how to navigate yet another set of hallways'

Nonetheless, these past two weeks have made me realise that by coming together and collaborating, we are able to achieve many great things. No matter how ferocious and life-altering this pandemic is and how far-reaching its consequences are, changes can be made for the better when everybody involved puts their best foot forward. Even though I wish it had not been necessary, one advantageous side effect is that I feel grateful to be part of a team that is so different in terms of disciplines, age and more, but yet enables our students to continue their education by uniting for a single cause in a time of crisis.

This story was shared by Sara Haverkamp, a student of Communication and Media at Erasmus University Rotterdam. Next to her studies, she is a writer at IBCoMagazine.

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