The national closure of schools has seen Eton go online, and transform into Eton Virtual. For housemasters this has meant providing pastoral support through Microsoft Teams and Zoom to replicate as far as possible the camaraderie and atmosphere of the house community. Fraser McAdden interviewed his housemaster Mr Holdsworth, to get to know more about the changes lockdown has brought to his role, and Mrs Holdsworth, to learn more about her experience of fighting on the NHS front line against COVID-19.

Mr Holdsworth

How have you found virtual teaching so far?

I have very much enjoyed virtual teaching, although it certainly can’t replace having a schoolroom full of boys. Online teaching comes with new challenges and the use of new technology, and I still get to teach a subject I love; it’s been very rewarding so far. I have also relished being able to branch out and be involved in the electives programme. It has often been a challenge while my wife is at work on the front line to home-school my youngest daughter and teach my own lessons, but my eldest daughter has been a real star helping (I have yet to receive a bill from her for her services!).

What does a housemaster have to do during this confusing time?

We have a teaching load comparable to most, but it’s also been important to try and maintain the wonderful house community and ensure the boys don’t feel completely isolated. The house staff and I have also been in constant contact, virtually, looking out for each other, offering help with shopping and post, and generally keeping everyone’s spirits up. A real highlight so far has been having almost the whole house, plus the Dame and Deputy Dame in Zoom at once; we obviously had the obligatory Kahoot quiz first (I didn’t win), but then the boys really enjoyed seeing each other and catching up. With the help of our house photographer we are creating a ‘virtual’ house photograph, and our online chess ladder is about to commence. Prospective boy/parent visits to the house have also had to evolve; I have just finished creating a video tour of the house in preparation for Zoom interviews after Long Leave.

What is your opinion of the electives programme? These are extra-curricular courses offered to Years 11 and 13 since the cancellation of national exams.

I think it’s pretty fabulous. Without the focus of the summer exams, both boys and beaks have had the opportunity to engage in topics and areas far wider-reaching than normal for the sake of enrichment alone. I think it has provided refreshing variety and interest for most. I didn’t have enough room in the week to offer my ‘1980s gaming’ elective, although perhaps it would have been rejected anyway! Whilst you can find innovative ways to try to replicate what you might do at school, I still look forward to seeing the boys back in the house. The place is eerily quiet, and rather soulless without them.

Mrs Holdsworth

What is your role in the NHS?

I am a Practice Development Sister in an Emergency Department, responsible for the training and development of upwards of 150 people, but during the current pandemic I have been primarily working clinically on the front line in A&E as a Senior Sister. However, my role also involves both teaching and coordinating training for staff, looking after staff wellbeing (which has been even more prominent in these challenging times), and ensuring standards and safety training (including working with PPE).

How are you finding working on the front line?

The camaraderie among my colleagues is absolutely the driving force in the NHS, along with the current support and gratitude from the community. People in the department and across the Trust have had to adapt to different roles as required, as well as worrying about taking the virus home to family members, yet they come in day after day to help patients and colleagues; we certainly don’t feel heroic, just that we are doing our jobs. It has been incredibly humbling to have our wonderful house staff appear outside our building every Thursday at 8pm to ‘clap for carers’. Working on the front line is a demanding job, but also an incredibly rewarding one.

What message would you like to send to those who want to contribute at this time of national crisis?

Everyone can contribute by respecting the advice from the government. I am aware of a number of families from our boarding house and indeed across the school community who have been involved in supporting their local hospitals in various ways, but also a plethora of other wonderful initiatives such as delivering food to the elderly and vulnerable, donating to local food banks and also raising money for the NHS. Even my mum in her 70s has been sewing items for my department!

I have been moved by the school’s reaction to the crisis, both in terms of housing NHS staff in some of the boarding houses, and schooling key workers’ children. My colleagues and I are incredibly grateful and touched by the public’s generosity and support and wish for us all to stay safe.