St John's College

Dear St John’s Community

COVID-19 and the National Lockdown

We most certainly live in interesting, complex and exceptionally difficult times. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the National 21 Day Lockdown has irrevocably changed how we imagined 'school' forever. We are exceptionally proud of the St John's staff who have risen to every challenge of the School closure and transition to online learning. Furthermore, the rate in which staff have been upskilled on their online teaching and collaboration skills has been nothing short of miraculous. Staff have not just tried to replicate their normal teaching online but have imagined, created and fashioned new ways of teaching and learning - all the way from The Bridge to Sixth Form – and for that St John's will never be the same.

The whole College moved to a complete online teaching and learning programme on 20 March 2020, after the President announced school closure until after Easter. Irene Basson, the Director of IT: Teaching and Learning, established a common google classroom platform for the School and trained staff in all the necessary online programmes and resources needed to sustain the remote educational delivery. Feedback from students and parents has been positive, and they have expressed their gratitude and for the School's proactive educational response and online communication.

Teachers are learning as to how to best offer e-Learning and balance real-time connection and activities with asynchronous prepared materials with which students can engage in their own time. Students have been encouraged to follow the normal routine and timetable as much as possible. The maturity and self-reliance of both the senior Prep, College and Sixth Form students have made the transition relatively seamless. In contrast, the Pre-Prep and Bridge students have had to rely more on parental support, at a time where parents are themselves transitioning their businesses and lives. Overall, we thank and congratulate the St John's academic staff for their remarkable engagement and hard work to ensure the strong continuity of the St John's teaching and learning programme at this time of great challenge. We also record our immense gratitude and thanks to all the St John's parents and families who have been so much part of this online educational journey over the last month.

The administrative staff and operations team worked tirelessly to close the St John's campus by Friday 27 March, in accordance with the 21 days of national shutdown ordered by the President. This involved negotiations with all the service providers and support staff. The St John's campus was provisionally closed on Wednesday 25 March and completely shut down on Friday 27 March. Communications to this effect were sent to all staff and parents. All staff are working remotely, and any staff with internet data challenges are being supported. Our security company is safeguarding the campus. Any guards who required further support were offered accommodation in the boarding houses to prioritise their health and safety at this time.

While we, as an extremely privileged educational community and were able to move seamlessly to full school closure and a fully integrated e-learning programme within days, we remain thoughtful and sobered by the current and potential ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic on our vulnerable nation and surrounding community. We salute our President and his command team for their decisive leadership within a most complex and challenging national context. We are also very much aware that there will be many parents and families that will be severely financially impacted and some even crippled by the consequences of the national lockdown, particularly if the shutdown period is lengthened. This and the consequential impact on St John's College as a School committed to all-round excellence will be the essential challenges facing the St John's community as it seeks to emerge confidently and irrevocably shaped from the pandemic era.

The real strategic challenge for St John's College is to emerge stronger in its values, Christian ethos and strategic mission by this global crisis. Our proud history points back to a heritage of St John's emerging even stronger and more defined its 'Venture of Faith' from the massive impacts of the many recessions periods, the Anglo-Boer, First World War, Second World Wars, as well as the rise and fall of apartheid and the prolonged armed struggle within our nation at the end of the last century.

Sheryl Sandberg, in her book Option B (2017), she explores the enormous impact of loss and grief in her life and the lives of others, and how we can train ourselves to be resilient in loss, finding opportunities for growth as well as joy in the face of unexpected trauma.

When she was 45 years old, Facebook COO and mother of two, Sheryl Sandberg found her husband collapsed on the floor of the gym. He never woke again. Sheryl was utterly devastated. Two weeks later, as she prepared for a family activity, she cried in front of a friend: "I want my husband, I want Dave!" Her friend replied: "I'm sorry Sheryl, but Option A is not available. But I promise you, I will help you make the most of Option B."

Sandberg argues that sooner or later, we will all lose an Option A in our lives and have to learn to make the most of an Option B.

The virus and lockdown have certainly stolen Option A from us all - from us as staff, from each and every student, and importantly from all the Matrics and Upper VIs. All of us in the St John's community are mourning the loss of our dreams, plans and routines for 2020 – they are gone! None of us ever imagined 2020 this way. Many of us are still in shock, some in denial; bewildered by what the Coronavirus has handed to us, and some of us still rage against the 'unfairness' of it all. Option A is now gone! And, we feel the enormous sense of loss in its wake.

Sandberg warns against the "three P's" that we experience amid any period of significant loss and trauma:

  1. Personalisation: the sense that trauma happened to us because of either something we did or did not do or simply because we feel personally aggrieved that circumstances have turned and conspired against us. We take the loss personally and rail against the universe for giving us a raw deal. 'Why did it happen to me?' we cry.
  2. Pervasiveness: the way the sense of the loss of Option A slowly grows and grows, infecting and impacting every moment of our day and every activity in which we engage. The national lockdown has accentuated our deep sense of loss as we face limitations on our movement and virtually on every aspect of our everyday lives. The loss starts feeling pervasive, overwhelming and oppressive.
  3. Persistence: the sense and belief that the loss will never really go away. I think we can all relate to this. Will the lockdown ever end? When will it end? Is there any light at the end of the tunnel.

In his article, Why You Should Ignore All That Coronavirus-Inspired Productivity Pressure, Aisha Ahmad writes to tertiary students. He argues that this is the time to change our mindsets and look for the growth opportunity in the storm. He writes:

None of us knows how long this crisis will last. We all want our "troops to be home before Christmas." The uncertainty is driving us all mad. Of course, there will be a day when the pandemic is over. We will hug our neighbours and our friends. We will return to our classrooms, gyms and coffee shops. Our borders will eventually reopen to freer movement. Our economies will one day recover from the forthcoming recessions. Yet we are only just at the beginning of that journey. For most people, our minds have not come to terms with the fact that the world has already changed ...

And right now, denial only serves to delay the essential process of acceptance, which will allow us to reimagine ourselves in this new reality. On the other side of this journey of acceptance are hope and resilience. The deep knowledge that we know that together we can do this, even if our struggles continue for months. We can be creative and responsive and will find light in all the nooks and crannies. We will learn new recipes and make unusual friends. We will have new skills and learnings, we cannot even imagine today, and we will inspire others, we have not yet met. And we will help each other. No matter what happens next, together, we will be blessed and ready to serve in new and profound ways.

Sandberg too, profoundly suggests that in the end, we learn more from loss, trauma and crisis than we ever do from success. She argues that success often blinds us to the flaws in our thinking and our actions, whereas confronting trauma and loss forces us to examine our lives, our relationships, our values and our world more deeply; compelling us to figure out bold, courageous ways to move forward in these uncertain times. She quotes Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, known as the Baal Shem Tov: "Let me fall if I must fall. The one I become will catch me."

With God's grace, we accept and embrace the challenge of these refining times, with the certain hope that St John's will emerge re-purposed for our proud mission and renewed venture of faith in South Africa.

The Council Executive will be meeting weekly during the Easter holidays to monitor the current lockdown, the economic environment as it unfolds and the potential impact it will have on our School and our community, and to review all costs associated with the School. We are grateful to our parents for your financial support, which is essential to St John’s emerging from this pandemic able to continue to deliver our world-class Christian, African education.

The School management would like to express their deep gratitude and appreciation for the evident and supportive guidance and wisdom of Council during these tumultuous times. We deeply value Council's role and one of the 'benefits' emerging out of this challenging period will be the intimate and clear collaboration between management and Council that will undoubtedly forge the strong leadership foundation for the years ahead.

In particular, we thank the Chair, Claire Höck, for her accessible and incisive leadership and for the many phone calls and online meetings that have coordinated the School's proactive response to the pandemic and national lockdown.

We also thank you, our parents, for your patience and support during the transition and implementation of our e-learning programme to enable remote learning during this time, and for supporting your children with their studies at home. We understand that this has been a challenging time for all.

We would like to take a moment to say a sad farewell to Prep Headmaster, Patrick Lees, who will be taking up the Headmastership at Pridwin Preparatory School at the start of the new term. We thank him for his years of leadership as headmaster at St John's Prep and wish him and Sarah all the best in their new venture. They will be missed.

To our Jewish Community, Shalom. May you be blessed with peace and happiness as you celebrate Passover. To our Muslim community, Ramadan Mubarak! To our Christian Community, I wish you a blessed Easter.

As Christians celebrate Easter this weekend, we will be reminded that the redemptive life, light and love of Christ emerges from the darkness and uncertainty of his death, to renew and transform us in our mission to be the light, life and love to all in our community.

May this holiday be a time of reflection and family time, in a world which is so conflicted and bewildering. The holiday is not a long one, and I hope that you have time to rest, recuperate and have fun with your sons and daughters.

Lux Vita Caritas

Stuart West

Executive Headmaster