Physics in the pandemic: ‘It was like waiting for a tsunami that is sure to strike ’ – Physics World

Physics

Mike Follows is a physics teacher at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, UK

This post is part of a series on how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the personal and professional lives of physicists around the world. If you’d like to share your own perspective, please contact us at pwld@ioppublishing.org. 


Photo of Mike Follows
In happier days: Mike Follows (right, sitting) with pupils from King Edward’s School, Birmingham, on a scuba-diving trip to the Mediterranean island of Gozo. (Courtesy: Mike Follows)

I am a physics teacher at King Edward’s School in Birmingham, UK, and it’s now a couple of weeks since all schools in the country were closed – except to the small number of pupils whose parents or carers work in key sectors, such as health or social care.

I have to confess that all my boys (King Edward’s is single-sex) were excited at the prospect of no school, possibly because they are in the lowest-risk group when it comes to COVID-19. Some of us initially did think that the government should have acted earlier in the wake of growing problems. But we certainly don’t expect to be back after the Easter holidays, prompting a couple of the more thoughtful members of my sixth-form tutor group to buy me bottles of wine as a parting gift.

There was a buzz about the place, with the school feeling like it was on a war footing.

In the final week before the shut-down, we actually had even fewer staff absences than usual, with just a handful of staff sensibly self-isolating. In fact, there was a buzz about the place, with the school feeling like it was on a war footing.

Pupils at King Edward’s School don’t do A-levels, like most 18-year-olds in the rest of the country. Instead, they take the International Baccalaureate (IB) and my fellow teachers and I would normally submit coursework scores to the IB after our students go on study leave in preparation for their exams. But because the school was due to shut on 20 March, the deadline was brought forward.

The IB algorithm then selected its samples of what it wants to moderate, which sent teachers scurrying away to quiet corners to annotate the coursework with more detail to justify the marks awarded. Squeezed between lessons we attended INSET (in-service training) sessions so that we can now teach online during the shutdown, with teachers sharing ideas before they went their separate ways.

Teachers scurried away to quiet corners to annotate the coursework with more detail to justify the marks awarded.

During quieter moments in those last days at school, colleagues shared their anxiety about what was to come. It was like waiting for a tsunami that is sure to strike but we don’t really know how big the wave will be and how much damage it will wreak.

Quite naturally, there was also some anxiety about being in such close proximity with other people, mainly students, who might be asymptomatic super-spreaders. Media reports suggest that people in the lowest age groups are as good as immune to the virus, which is perhaps why amongst our boys, the novelty of using hand sanitisers wore off within a day and they were fairly blasé about social distancing.

That final week at King Edward’s also brought home to me just why the school is so successful. While it has more than its fair share of bright students and lots of talented teachers, it’s more than just a school. It is a community, almost an extended family.

In the face of COVID-19, the life of a teacher has become pretty surreal. Though it has made teaching and learning more difficult, I think we are happy that schools are shut for all except the children of key workers – if only so that it reduces the risk to our families and slows the spread of the virus more generally.

As we said our goodbyes on that final day, I knew I was not alone in hoping that we will all be returning to our classrooms just as soon this nightmare is over.

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