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In recent weeks, Saigon has experienced a return to relative normality in many regards, and schools may soon resume in-person classes.

While official decisions remain to be made, it’s reasonable to expect that schools will welcome students back into classrooms sooner rather than later. Institutions like the British International School Ho Chi Minh City (BIS) have been preparing their campuses for such an event, while virtual learning has ensured that students have kept pace with normal lessons over the past few months and are ready for the transition.

Learning from Lockdown

As Vietnam learns to “live with the virus,” schools will need to implement increased safety measures. The BIS Senior Leadership Team and administration staff have already been taking frequent tours of the campuses to identify ways to facilitate appropriate social distancing and cleanliness in classrooms, recreational facilities and canteens. But one of the biggest changes students and families may notice when returning to school is the increased use of virtual communication.

During their current Virtual School Experience (VSE), BIS place great emphasis on maintaining as normal of schedules, routines, activities and school life as possible. At the Primary level, all lessons are timetabled including specialist classes such as PE, Modern Foreign Languages (MFL), ICT and Music. In addition, smaller group support from the English as an Additional Language (EAL) and Learning Support department has meant the students continue to receive the one-on-one and small group support as they would physically do in school. Additionally, events like school assemblies and extracurricular activities continue, but have to be held virtually, or are recorded and sent to families. Rather than simply serve as a stop-gap measure until campuses re-open, BIS leaders and teachers quickly learned that making communications available online had many advantages.

“Some parents actually feel more involved; it isn't just dropping their child off at the gate anymore,” says Deirdre Grimshaw (Dee), Head Teacher of BIS’s Junior Campus. For families, especially those with busy schedules or those with members living all around the world, VSE was the first time that many could watch a school assembly or listen to a student music concert

And activities like the Virtual Stay, Play and Learn All Together (V-SPLAT) invited parents to join young learners in activities in more engaging ways than they might have been able to if the student was on campus. Even when face-to-face classes resume, BIS plans to continue recording and streaming events, as it allows families to have a closer connection to the school and their children’s education.

Extracurricular clubs and activities have also benefited from the transition to VSE. Dee explained what a joy it was to see three generations of family members all cooking from home together as part of the “four ingredients or less” activity. Families were also able to participate in events like a virtual run, Zumba classes,  and a virtual swim competition. 

So not only are normal extracurricular activities continuing during campus closures but exciting new opportunities to involve families and strengthen the community are being discovered that can be continued even when in-person classes resume.

Harnessing Technology Responsibly

“If parents are comfortable and they feel they can support their children, we are already on the right track,” Dee says in regards to early efforts to reach out to families to educate them on the logistics and purpose of VSE through webinars and meetings. Part of this awareness-raising process included providing families with digital citizenship guidelines to ensure that students are safe and responsible on the internet. Webinars for parents helped not only teach them how to assist with technology but also how to monitor their children’s online activities.

VSE also helped teachers strengthen their digital fluency. While technology has always played an important role at BIS, being forced to rely on it introduced new and creative ways to use it. Some of the platforms and resources teachers learned about during VSE will continue, which will allow students to become even stronger independent and self-motivated learners, a core value at BIS.

How Young Learners Keep Pace

“It’s about relationships and routines; about building connections with their teachers, with their teaching assistants, with their friends and doing all the things we would expect them to do in the classroom,” Dee says about the goals of VSE for early learners. Indeed, the same skills that are taught in class are modeled and practiced virtually. Students are able to learn simple manners such as taking turns, offering greetings, sharing, and practicing social skills.

The main goal of VSE is to continue students’ academic and social development undeterred and make for a smooth transition back to campus. Regular lesson plans simply moved to the virtual sphere, so when students do return, they will have made good progress during the period of Virtual Learning and the teachers will be able to support and guide them on their return to the classroom, identifying students that may need additional support to ensure their return to school is seamless. This was particularly important for students who may not be native English speakers or those with additional educational needs. Social skills and getting to know people outside their family is also a major focus and Dee noted how important it is for students “to see their friends, a range of teachers from the school and have stories told to them by people other than their parents or a regular basis.” 

Dee has taught for more than 25 years, and she explained that one of the most powerful scenes she has ever witnessed in her career occurred during VSE. A young student who had only joined the school during virtual learning was overwhelmed and began sobbing during class.

Using the schools' digital platform, one student left her a heartfelt note comforting her and extending his support as a friend. When in-class learning resumes, she will already have a friend waiting for her. Such a situation exemplifies the power of VSE, the ease with which students will be able to transition to in-person classes because of it, and the values and character of the BIS community.

A Parent's Perspective

While learning about VSE from the school's perspective is helpful, hearing a parent's experiences is essential. 

Mr. Willis, a father of two new students at the school, aged 3 and 5, was initially a little skeptical at how starting a new school during VSE would benefit his young children in the same way as in-school lessons. However, he quickly came to understand the value of the VSE program at BIS for both of his children to grow socially, emotionally and academically. This is due to the high level of positive engagement his children have with their teachers and classmates; the digital platforms they use with the school to communicate and learn; the flexibility of the program; the balance between online and off screen activities and the commitment and family support from teachers and senior leaders.

He highlighted that his children "have established a wonderful routine and wake up excited to see their teachers and classmates during the first live morning call of the day and these social interactions during a period of heavy lockdown in Ho Chi Minh City have helped them make new friends already and feel part of the school community."

Willis stated that he is already seeing improvements in his children in areas such as reading, phonics and fine motor skills and they are developing a love for learning and independence. His children are excited to start school in person when the time arrives and because of VSE, he believes the transition will be easy as the school is already preparing students for a return to campus when they will finally get to meet in person their teachers and friends they have become familiar with over the last few months.

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BIS HCMC's website

BIS HCMC's Email

+84 (0) 28 3744 4551

BIS HCMC, Junior Campus, 225 Nguyen Van Huong Street, Thu Duc City, HCMC

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