Buchan PS: All in the day of a rural principal in 2020

Drought and bushfire cause significant disruption to communities and education, but the addition of a global health crisis has meant Buchan Primary School faces a complex and amalgamated set of challenges in its education provision this year.

Buchan Primary School, a small school of 23 students, has remained resilient throughout the many challenges and disruptions of 2020. Situated 50kms north of Lakes Entrance, this Far East Gippsland school and its surrounding communities began this year fighting some of Australia’s most devastating bushfires.

Despite natural disasters and a global health crisis, Acting Principal Sarah Walker and Buchan PS staff have been able to deliver a curriculum of literacy and numeracy, and also a variety of specialty subjects aimed at increasing student wellbeing. Similarly they have renewed the school’s library and the student’s undercover area, all while navigating remote learning, restrictions and bushfire-trauma.

‘It’s been a series of unfortunate events’, says Acting Principal Sarah Walker, ‘it has taken its toll on families.’

In January the school year commenced upon a cohort of staff, students and parents who were already incredibly fatigued, having spent the summer fighting bushfires and barely beginning the process of recovery. 

‘This has been a very trying and tiring year for Buchan and its surrounds’, says Sarah. 

Despite intentions to end term one on a positive note with some whole-school events planned, the statewide early school holidays were a blessing in disguise for Sarah and the school. 

‘Having to end several days earlier than expected was a positive in the end, because everyone was really, really tired. Since the bushfires the community had been running on adrenaline and hadn’t stopped. Despite huge amounts of support everyone was still really fatigued.’ 

Although a needed break for staff and students, the early school holidays added extra pressure on parents who hadn’t had an opportunity to rest since the bushfires began in late November. 

‘Parents didn’t get the break they deserved…and it was about this time the kids were starting to show symptoms of post traumatic stress after the fires.’

As COVID-19 infections increased nationally, the Victorian government announced term 2 would take place online. Buchan, like a number of remote areas in Australia, had poor connectivity at the time, and were not in a position to provide students with devices for accessing education online. 

‘We had issues with resources many others take for granted… The lack of IT meant we were relying on hardcopy work. Students lost their teacher interaction so they were essentially homeschooling.’

The constant chopping and changing of education provision was trying for staff and students. 

‘Parents were trying to do their best to support learning and motivate kids in between the day to day restrictions, while they also worked from home.’ 

‘Isolation has been incredibly challenging , some students are only children – post-bushfire trauma straight into covid –  they are missing their peers.’ 

Sarah and staff have shifted their focus this year, delivering a program of learning which provides students with variety and new encounters. 

‘We re-evaluated our timetable, we still have literacy and numeracy but also new experience and opportunities.’

‘This year we introduced LOTE, music, STEM and ICT, we’ve maintained cooking, are doing pottery again…our aim is to give the kids as much variety as we can. We tried to spread the specialist classes out across the year. Going forward that’s what we’re wanting to focus on, music and LOTE, art and ICT.’ 

Education State Forum

The road into Buchan.

Prior to this year, music resources were few and far between at Buchan Primary. Despite this, Sarah was able to initiate a program by undertaking a professional development opportunity offered by The Song Room.

‘I put my hand up to be involved….through that program we were given a grant to spend on instruments.’

‘I  went to a workshop in term one, from there I was given a mentor. I was linked up with digital ARTS:LIVE resources and then the duet music program with my mentor.’ 

Sarah’s mentor was a singer. They met (online) weekly for 45-60minute for sessions which would provide Sarah with the skills necessary to deliver the music program. Before remote learning was reinstated, Sarah’s mentor visited Buchan and took classes with the students, an opportunity for Sarah to undertake active in-class learning. 

After delays in the instrument delivery (due to COVID-19), Sarah was able to start the music classes in term three. 

‘I started the program this term…which was going really well…The kids absolutely loved it. The feedback from parents was really good.’ 

Beyond the music program, Sarah is also teaching Italian as part of the LOTE subject.

In addition to the curriculum, Sarah and staff have been working hard to renew parts of the school indoor and outdoor areas.

Buchan Primary School library before changes.

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Buchan Primary School library with new shelving and furniture.

Noticing the library wasn’t a welcoming space for students to enjoy and engage with the books and resources on offer, students, parents and staff began a project to revitalise the space. 

To begin, Sarah, staff and students worked together to move the library into one of the portable classrooms. This required contributions from the whole community. They held a parent working bee, and teachers were generously working after hours to help with moving and sorting books.  Even this process was surprisingly beneficial for the students, Sarah acknowledges.

‘The students were involved and looking at books in between moving – pulling them out to read.’ 

Through the department, Sarah had been connected with the organisation GIVIT, who facilitate donation sourcing and delivering across Australia.  

‘I contacted GIVIT, sharing a photo of our library saying we want to rejuvenate it and put some spark back into what is not just a place you get a book from, but a place you are happy to sit in…We needed some new shelves, comfortable seating, tables, chairs.’

Sarah applied on GIVIT, and the charity was able to provide support by locating the furniture and resources the school was searching for.  

‘Somebody donated their time to build the shelving…four lots of tables and ottomans were delivered last wednesday.’ 

With a number of students required at school during this period of remote learning, Sarah has seen even this part of the process inspiring the students. 

‘They’re really excited you know.. “Let’s unwrap this! Let’s build this!”’

‘The next step will be to touch up the walls. We have had to do it ‘slow and steady’, as we haven’t had the chance to do another working bee since term 1.’

The staff have been instrumental in this process, assisting with changes and improvements  since the start of the year. The end result, Sarah hopes, will be an exciting surprise for returning students to see the new furniture and an overall renewed library space. 

Old undercover eating area. 

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Undercover area with new furnitre.

Through GIVIT, Sarah was able to source new outdoor furniture for the student undercover area. 

‘It wasn’t an inviting space..the students were there and couldn’t wait to leave once they finished eating.’ 

‘We got four outdoor benches from a venue in Melbourne…the kids now want to sit there, they play board games, read, it’s a lot more inviting…It makes a huge difference.’

For the Buchan school and students these donations are also a reminder that Australia is still thinking of them. 

‘If you drive down towards Buchan half of the drive into the town is burnt vegetation, so for our kids to have something new and to know that people were thinking about them…and that they came from, in some cases, even beyond melbourne…It was really nice to know we hadn’t been forgotten.’

There has been incredible generosity shown to Buchan Primary School. Schools in metropolitan melbourne sent down arts supplies, teachers from other schools volunteered their time and travelled to run specialist programs like drama, a school invited the Buchan students to join their school camp for a day, and VCAL students from a secondary school had planned to travel to Buchan, camp and run activities with the students. 

The restrictions in Victoria meant that some of these things couldn’t take place but for Sarah and Buchan PS the thoughtfulness was the biggest support. 

While 2020 continues to present a complex set of challenges for the Buchan community, Sarah highlights the community’s resilience and ability to support itself. 

‘The community has been brought together as a result of it all, they have gelled and worked together.’

Sarah explains that the school has been able to better prepare for remote learning in term three. 

‘We have been able to give our students a laptop to take home and the department has provided internet dongles for those without access.’

‘Students have been given a debrief of how to use online resources…Parents and students have been more confident with online learning.’ 

While ensuring Buchan students have access to online education has been a priority, Sarah acknowledges her focus for the year is to provide students with variety and new experiences. 

‘Our focus now, after we have got a lot of support from the department, from people onsite and the community, is to focus on the welfare of the kids.’