Championing healthy relationships

and sexual wellbeing

Lessons from Italy: education after weeks of school closures

In the UK, we are getting used to new rhythms of life due to the COVID-19 situation. A significant change for many families is the closure of schools for most children. 

One of the advantages of our connected world is the ability to connect easily with people in different countries. So this week, I got the chance to speak via a video call with Vicky Walsh (find her on instagram) who is a member of acet UK’s Esteem Network of trained relationships and sex educators. 

Vicky is based in Rome, Italy, working at St George's British International School. Italy closed all its schools on the 4th of March and Vicky has been teaching digitally since then. I asked her how things are going now and what advice she can give to teachers and external RSE speakers in the UK.

Vicky started by explaining how, during the first week or so of attempting digital teaching, many of the classroom teachers she knows in Italy felt very overwhelmed. A major factor was the technology itself. 

Vicky said in an email to me on the 6th of March, “I feel like I am working on an IT helpdesk” and, “It is a bit of a nightmare to be honest - it's giving me a very real window into what remote learning would look like and I don't like it!!!”

Three weeks later, when we spoke we fleshed out these feelings a bit more. Not only are many teachers dealing with a huge learning curve around how technology works but it also can feel overwhelming for other reasons. 

Firstly, Vickly highlighted how, in the current climate, the children she is working with seem to need more feedback. It is not surprising that at this time of generally raised anxiety, young people may be looking for greater reassurance from the significant adults in their life, that they are doing something right. 

At this time of uncertainty, young people need to have control on something and know that they are doing it well. 

Vicky explained how learners would be asking for feedback on the work she had just set them, at the same time she was trying to line up and arrange the next assignments, leading to her feeling that she was constantly playing catch up. 

An unexpected additional element of this can come from parents. Many parents are doing their best with helping the children continue education at home with the work sent home by schools. This had led to increased buy-in and interest from parents. 

Not only do the kids want to know if they got the right answer so do many of the parents!

The pressure for quick digital replies and fast turnaround, compared to traditional marking of paper-based school work, may mirror our general attitude to digital communication. 

Most of us would expect it to take days, or even weeks, to get a reply to a physical letter but, generally, we expect much quicker replies to digital messages (texts, whatsapp etc).

We may need to modify some of these expectations. 

It seems the first week or so of digital teaching is a really big period of adjustment. So, for external RSE speakers, it is probably best to give our classroom teaching friends space and support to get the basics rolling. 

Don’t bombard them with requests for clarifications about upcoming booked RSE lessons right now.  

However, it was encouraging when Vicky told me that, after the first week or so, “Then you get into a rhythm.” 

Lots of people are sharing their schedules online - real and parody - and it seems to be a clear lesson from Italy that, once new rhythms are established, things start to feel more manageable for staff and young people.  

A key thing to highlight through this process is the need for educators to think about how to balance the demands of being online all day for work with our own mental health needs. 

Vicky specifically highlighted that, for educators who live alone, “Screen time is insane. If I want to communicate with people, it is all screen time, which is exhausting.” 

We have known for a long time that too much screen time can be problematic for adults and children. Yet we are now in a situation where screen time of one sort or another is fundamental to feeling connected. 

Social isolation and distancing should not mean social disconnection. 

There is a balance to get to and that may take some time for us all, sometimes we need to fully unplug but feeling alone is not healthy. 

Along with the physical impact of staring at a screen, there is another reason for us all to be mindful of too much time online. The constant pressure of the news can be overwhelming. 

We discussed the danger of over-talking about COVID-19 and reading too much. 

Vicky commented that her experience has been, “At first, you live and breathe it but soon you get into wanting to talk about anything else.” 

We may need to be more vocal in encouraging ourselves - and young people - that it is healthy to take time away from the news and talking about COVID-19. We can find creative ways to do this. 

For example, if you still want some social media, you may find Pinterest a welcome break. Search for art, cooking, craft, games, hobbies and other non COVID-19 related content. Pin the things you like and Pinterest will try and show you more of it. You may still see occasional posts about COVID-19 but much less than on Twitter for instance. 

There are other steps we may need to take and Vickly explained how, “Yesterday I had to hide my phone!” 

At this time, it is important we are all kind to ourselves and that we listen to voices like Vicky that remind us that, “Some days you are not going to be productive” and that is ok. 

We have not all agreed to partake in some big study about the effectiveness and efficiency of working from home. We are responding to an unprecedented global pandemic. No one should be expecting themselves to be perfect. 

Many women, in particular, are feeling a new triple pressure to be excellent at working from home, be excellent at looking after and educating children, and keep running the house as normal. This is an area we should all keep on eye on - Vicky reported that she is seeing this situation in the families she knows are in lockdown. 

We shouldn’t fall backwards into sexist attitudes at this time, we all have new roles to play! 

One warning Vicky wanted to give us in the UK is about the emotional and mental impact of changing restrictions during a lockdown. For example, at the start of the Italian lockdown, Vicky, like many people in the UK right now, made daily outdoor exercise a part of her routine. Then that was taken away as tighter restrictions came into force. 

Equally disorientating for us may be being asked to carry legal papers with us if we go outside. In Italy a self filled out permit is required by anyone who leaves their house and the justifiable reasons are much tighter than in the UK at the moment. Police are stopping and checking people on the streets. 

Vicky describes it as a, “Pre-war feeling”, a reduction in personal liberty. 

Feeling trapped in your home is disconcerting and Vicky highlighted how sharp this can be for people living in an apartment. Equally, the lockdown can provoke feelings of jealousy between city residents living under the tightest restrictions and in the smallest home, and countryside residents who have gardens and a more relaxed environment. 

I don’t want to be too pessimistic but we should be prepared that things could get tougher. 

Recognising and naming our feelings (even the unpleasant ones) is important for our own wellbeing and is an important skill to role model to young people. 

Vicky’s experience has been that, during this time of remote teaching, the priority has been on core subjects.  For PSHE, students have been, so far, set quite generic tasks. 

In some schools, it now appears kids are being overwhelmed by the volume of self directed work. There is an ongoing tension in digital education between contact teaching via screens and time away from screen. 

A pupil survey of senior school students at Vicky's school revealed that teachers were (in fact) setting too much work. For some students this was creating an additional pressure as they became stressed trying to get everything done. This valuable feedback allowed teachers to scale back on the volume of tasks set. 

For Vicky's Year 5s, she was listing extra tasks as optional, thinking that this would keep her higher achievers busy. However, she soon realised that some students felt that they must do this work on top of the compulsory tasks and were working much longer hours than she was expecting. This is something we should watch out for in the UK. 

Vicky explained that whilst video conferencing services allow for greater levels of interaction, debate and discussion can be very difficult. 

For those of us who work as external RSE speakers and are considering offering schools some digital lessons after Easter,  we need to think now about what we are best placed to offer. 

What will help young people and create less work, not more work, for our friends working for schools? We may need to rethink our structure, content and methods.

Many topics and activities we do in a classroom will need to change. Young people may be willing in a classroom to say biological words like penis, vulva and ejaculation but asking them to say that in the family home when their parents are in the same room is another thing!

We also need to think about the many children who do not have a computer or broadband at home. How can we support their learning during this time? 

There are some great educational RSE videos available online but many of them work best when they are supported with discussion and debate. So which ones will we want to use now?

This blog post may have given you more questions than answers but hopefully we can keep the conversation going and work towards something helpful. 

acet UK is working hard to research, discover, create and pilot new ways of working. 

If you are doing something new with RSE in response to COVID-19 I would love to hear about it. What works, what doesn’t? 

If you have used an already created resource, we would love to hear how it works. 

If you are a member of the Esteem network, we will be circulating ideas to you as soon as possible. If you are not yet a member of Esteem and would like to read more about how you can be trained to join our network of educators please click here.