by Gary Cully
As I was leaving a pretty relaxed few days of the annual Associated Christian School’s Conference, I took a call from my cleaning manager. I took the call expecting nothing more than a benign request for more equipment or supplies in what was a busy season for our cleaning staff. Little did I know, that her call would send our school community into an unprecedented time of disruption and uncertainty, and put our humble little school on the map for unexpected reasons.
My first year as a Principal wasn’t the auspicious start to the leadership of Parklands Christian College that I thought it might be. I had visions of connecting with my school community and forming genuine and long-lasting relationships with staff, parents, and community groups. I looked forward to running fetes, barbeques, attending sports carnivals, and participating in all the usual events that built community and enriched education. I had left Parklands in 2016 after being part of its foundational team and spending 14 wonderful years building the school. In late 2016, my wife Hannah and I (and our three children), were invited to serve as missionaries in the Philippines working with young women with tragic backgrounds. Upon our return to Australia in November of 2019, I was looking forward to re-entering Aussie life and getting back into my beloved craft of education. Little did I know…
I listened to our slightly nervous cleaning manager tell me that one of her staff had recently returned from interstate travel. Upon learning this, she insisted that this staff member be tested for COVID-19 before returning to work. This moment of good leadership and clear thinking from our cleaning manager probably saved our community and indeed our state from wider exposure to COVID-19. The staff member was tested and her result was positive, and we were probably going to be on the news.
My cleaning manager and I ended the phone call calmly enough, she was to ring Queensland Health, and I was to…what was on that disaster management plan? I can’t remember who I called first, but somewhere in the next 45 minutes, I had called the Parklands Executive, our Board and key staff, Independent Schools Queensland, Associated Christian Schools, and my wife. With every conversation, it slowly dawned on me that this was going to be serious and that I wasn’t going to be able to deal with this tomorrow.
Upon my return to work, our Executive devised a plan based on the advice from Independent Schools Queensland and the now regular conversations with Queensland Health. Initially, the decision was to simply quarantine those few staff that had been in direct contact with the infected staff member, and that an announcement to our community could wait until the next day. Unfortunately, at the very same time, these discussions were taking place, staff were hosting a trade information evening with dozens of parents and students on-site, and we needed to ask them to leave. Minutes after we canceled this event and asked parents to leave because we had discovered COVID-19 in our community, the emails and calls started flooding in.
I felt for the Queensland Health staff on the phone, I really did. They weren’t just discovering a single Queenslander was infected, they were coming to grips with COVID-19 in a school community of 734 students, 130+ staff, and almost 400 families, contractors, relief staff, and visitors. The implications were staggering and the decisions they made in the first few hours were going to be in the public forum almost immediately. Although the contact of the infected staff member with our community was extremely low, and the likelihood of exposure to the virus was unlikely, the decision was made to not only quarantine the few staff with direct contact but also to close the school. By 11:30 pm that first evening, we had our immediate instructions, produced an initial account of the events leading to this point, emailed staff and families, and I had drafted a media statement that I knew that I would need the following day.
Over the course of the night, the unofficial versions of what was going on at Parklands started to flow. The speculation on social media was something to behold, from both our school community and the wider community in general. Speculation soon turned to accusation, as people sought to understand what they were reading on social media. My wife insisted that I avoid reading anything on Facebook, and I took this advice and still know very little of what was posted in those early days.
The next morning I got up early and turned on the television, and was horrified to see a Channel 7 News reporter standing in the dark out the front of our school. As I arrived at school an hour later, dressed ready to face the media and armed with last night’s draft media statement, I met my Heads of School and a few key staff and refined our plan, edited our media statement and gave my first press conference at 9:00am. The press were actually very nice, and set my mind at ease. I think they could tell I was nervous. After reading my statement, I took questions. I found the experience quite good, and didn’t feel ambushed or taken by surprise. I thank God for all those media training courses I attended that I didn’t think I would ever need!
In the first 48 hours, as we were closing our school and preparing for quarantine, we thought we should get on the phone lines and answer the never ending calls coming in through our main line, after all, parents could be calling asking for help or clarification right? However, many of the calls came from outside of our school community, and we realised that there was little to be gained by fielding the many inquiries and requests from the general public. After taking these type of calls for a little over an hour, we closed our phone lines and shut down our Facebook site. Ironically, during this time we actually received 2 enrolment inquiries after parents had seen us on the news.
The next week was a blur of events that saw our community go from a simple school closure, to a school wide quarantine for all students and staff. I worked closely with the Metro South Public Health Unit from home, while our Senior Pastor, who is also on our school board, looked after our site due to his absence from our site during the period of exposure. I worked with a small team of staff and maintained lines of communication with our community via email and SMS, while the Executive Team rolled out our Online Learning platform, PCC@Home and generally kept the school running. I found myself up until midnight most nights drafting and re-drafting emails to parents as we released communications from Public Health to our parents and staff. Public Health and Parklands soon developed a rhythm of working together closely to provide up to date information about the conditions of quarantine and testing.
I am a big believer that good, regular communication keeps people reassured and feeling informed, and in general our community did feel informed. However, people had a lot of questions, and unfortunately some information from Public Health changed during the course of our quarantine. Over the weekend of our quarantine, Public Health announced that all staff and students had to be retested from day 10. The weekend of this announcement was probably my busiest since the crisis began, and my little team were swamped with emails. My team agreed on our responses, aligned our information and consistently and graciously replied to almost every concern and comment.
The only communications that came to me were the tricky ones. Some families really struggled to have their children retested, after all COVID-19 testing is not the most pleasant of experiences. In high stress times, people need someone to talk to, and fortunately the school was able to offer that service, albeit via email. We had countless emails asking good questions from concerned parents, and while we couldn’t offer the expertise of 13 HEALTH, we could certainly empathise with the difficult circumstances.
As quarantine progressed, and people resigned themselves to the inconvenience of staying home and isolating, the encouragement and thanks started to flood in from our school community, fellow schools, associations and friends. Our politicians gave us incredible support, and publically acknowledged the determination and courage of our community. We had our critics, but the wave of love I felt toward the end of our trial helped me to forget the difficulty, and reminded me why I love the Parklands community so much. One of my favourite gestures of appreciation was a delivery of doughnuts to my home. This simple gesture really touched me, not just because doughnuts are my favourite food, but because amongst the anxiety and stress everyone was feeling, people in my community still cared in a time when I felt very alone. Thank God for these thoughtful people in our lives who send encouraging emails, drawings, cards, gifts and texts!
We finished our time in quarantine by sending out gifts to those staff who took the brunt of the crisis, I thought this was the least I could do. We also sent gifts to the nurses who endured many days of conducting COVID-19 testing, and the Metro South Public Health Unit who I think of as my friends. We are forever grateful for the countless professionals that cared for us during this time. After this, we had a weekend to gather our thoughts before reopening the school on Monday 10th August. We made a big deal about our return from quarantine, and celebrated the reunification of our community.
Now that the media has gone, the critics have quietened and our students are back on site, we look forward to getting back to connecting with students and their families. We now set our sights to finishing Term 3, and making the best of a much disrupted 2020. I have a renewed empathy for Victorian Schools and the challenges they face as they endure extended periods of disruption and isolation, and pray for their swift return to normality, health and safety. I truly count my blessings and consider our community fortunate that no new cases of COVID-19 appeared in our community, and that God looked after us during our time of fear and uncertainty.