“Wash your hands.”
“Wear a mask.”
“Don’t forget the sanitiser!”
These words have no doubt been sounding like a broken record in schools all around the world of late, to the despair and annoyance of millions of students. But for a setting like EKS, where self-direction and personal autonomy have always been cornerstones of our ethos, they are particularly heart-wrenching for staff and students alike.
As a democratic setting, we have of course received a number of enquiries over the past months from both current and perspective families concerning our response to the current crisis. Understandably, some are worried about safety, others about the impact that this will have on students’ autonomy – concerns we also feel very keenly. It is a difficult path to tread.
So how does the current situation impact on democracy at EKS? Is freedom no longer possible for our students? Or does their freedom come at the cost of the safety of our more vulnerable students and student family members?
It is not my purpose here to describe or explain our current Covid Policy. There is a riveting 17 page document on our website for anyone who wants to know the exact details of how we have chosen to respond to the pandemic and the measures we have put in place. Instead I will consider how the new dynamics have affected students in the first week that we were back.
There have been concessions, inevitably, and these have not all been warmly received by every community member. It was necessary in our first week to follow a particular set of guidelines that meant students had to be split into two groups. Friends were separated and our beautiful new building could not be enjoyed in full by either group, with each being mostly confined to certain rooms in the building. Hand sanitiser was used regularly and masks were worn whenever the two groups came into contact with each other. Furthermore, a much loved staff member had to take the heart-wrenching decision to step back from the community to work from the office for the time being, in order to better shield a vulnerable relative. It goes without saying that this was not how we dreamed our “grand reopening” would be.
Nevertheless, I think it is important to say that there have been many positive changes in our community too. There has been a certain shift in culture that is difficult to describe – a deepening in maturity and insight. While our Covid measures have been annoying, and at times frustrating for students, they have all understood the necessity of them and have made some effort to respect the rules we have in place. Perhaps this is not as surprising as some may think for a self-directed setting, since freedom at EKS has always been understood within the context of the responsibility we each have to one another. Behind every law in our lawbook, every JC case, every community meeting debate lies this same basic dichotomy – the freedom of the individual vs responsibility to the community. I believe our students understand our current measures within that same framing and have risen to meet the challenge.
A few specific things that have warmed my heart this week have included seeing a reserved teenager that has been with us for some time put himself forward for community meeting chairperson for the first time and amaze us with his natural ability to run a meeting and keep order with no prior leadership experience. Then two new six and seven-year-old students put together one of our first proposals of the year to buy some resources that they wanted. Others have made innovative use of technology to communicate and spend time together with friends outside of their groupings. Additionally, while there have, admittedly, been a few disagreements this week, every JC case that has occurred has been carried out with a real maturity and been resolved beautifully with no hard feelings at all on either side. It has felt as though our students have “grown up” since we’ve last seen them, and even the new students that we have welcomed in have brought with them a certain wisdom and insight that seems beyond their years.
I’ve thought about why this might be, and I suppose it has always been a part of the natural adaptability of children to rise to meet the challenges of the climate they are living in. It is why we have survived through so many terrible events in history. While the past six months have been incredibly difficult for everyone, I like to think that they have caused our community to come back together with a renewed gratitude and appreciation for what we have. It is sad that our students are (for now) unable to experience in full the freedom that they had before Covid, but they have truly risen to the challenge of forming a democratic community in the midst of the most difficult time of our generation.
At this time of worldwide anxiety and division, as at so many other times in my life, I am struck anew with the conviction that we as adults have so much to learn from children.