As a trip leader I like to be in control of everything. I plan to the nth degree, providing colleagues with detailed itineraries and regular updates throughout the trip. I like to know who is going where and when, and to have a clear chain of responsibility with group leaders reporting back to me. This is how I feel comfortable.
As soon as the ambulances arrived in the port, we were faced very quickly with a key decision: to try and control the whole situation or to relinquish some control and focus on other areas. In this instance there was little time to confirm with school. As more and more students began to fall ill, keeping up with who was being taken away became extremely difficult, especially with diminishing numbers of staff. I was forced to confirm and accept that the paramedics would give me a full list of all the people who had been taken. Once I had been given the assurance that every student would be assigned to a specific hospital and that a list would be given to me, I was able to partially let go and focus on other issues. Throughout the next two hours I continued to liaise with the paramedics and confirmed multiple times that I would get lists. This made communication back to school tricky, as we were unable to provide a definitive list of students for a time, however it was necessary for the emergency crews to complete their jobs effectively, and to ensure that the other students were being looked after.
With the paramedics working with those who were ill, we shifted our attention to ensuring that students were aware of what was happening and that they did not panic. There were also practical issues to deal with such as access to toilets, stopping children from getting cold, and ensuring that luggage was in the right place to travel on to our hostel for the remainder. Again, having really good support meant that all these issues were dealt with, even to the point of staff collecting errant passports and EHIC cards, something which might have created chaos later. Eventually I was given the list of students with their associated hospitals. We made multiple copies of this and used it as our master document for all updates.
The situation was similar once the remaining students were transferred to a local hostel. Fifteen or so Red Cross volunteers helped to register and administer to sick students as they arrived. Remaining staff supported in keeping students calm and getting them to rooms. I ensured I was part of the registration process so that I knew who had arrived in the hostel. I therefore had a clear list of those who were well and based in the hostel and those who were sick and in hospital. Keeping and updating a single copy of these lists proved very important three more students fell ill during registration, requiring two more members of staff be sent to hospitals with them.
This whole process of “letting go” was actually very difficult, and of course might not have been appropriate in all circumstances. It is therefore important to establish those basics: will I know where my students are? How will I contact them? How do we get an adult to be with them? Again, having all staff alert and asking these questions was a godsend and meant that we had clear and useable lists of students within a few minutes of the last ambulance leaving the ferry terminal.
The school support team was also excellent in this regard and I was able to pass on issues such as contacting parents and dealing dealing with the insurance company to my deputy head. I then ensured I kept in regular contact with school, either myself or via a nominated staff member.
Whatever our personal reactions inside, the appearance of calm was a key element in ensuring that students didn’t panic. Of course a lot of credit goes to the students themselves for this. If the students had become panicky or hysterical then dealing with the situation as a whole would have become incredibly difficult. A calm approach throughout was vital.
Clearly, the arrival of 15 or 20 paramedics, doctors and police in masks was alarming for many of the students. Indeed, this was the most frightening part for most of them as there was so much rushing about, form filling and general urgency. Clearly little could be done to help this, but it made it all the more vital for staff to maintain a sense of “normality”. Little things like communicating calmly and clearly with students; outlining the likely options and outcomes; addressing them in their usual counting groups; and crucially trying to keep a sense of humour; meant that students maintained their trust in us as a team. Ironically, focusing on the little things in the bigger crisis helped more than you might imagine. My remaining colleagues were able to keep students calm by focusing in on things they could control: “have you had a drink recently? Maybe go and have one.”; “Don’t walk around in your socks, find some shoes”; “Have you had a shower this morning? Do you need to get a change of clothes?”; “Are you hungry? Why don’t you go to the canteen and eat?” Students told me afterwards that these very normal questions helped them to focus more on the practicalities and speculate less on potential outcomes. They also appreciated the fact that they knew what we knew as teachers as well – they said it made them feel more secure that nothing was being withheld. In the end it goes back to the key phrase in loco parentis – we had to consider how we would want our own children to be looked after and respond accordingly.
It was also important for us to keep calm and rational within ourselves. At one point there was just myself and another staff member at the youth hostel with the 35 students who had not been sick. It would have been easy to lose our cool here if we had not recognised that we could use the support agencies around us as well. We established a rota for sleeping to ensure that we would both be able to deal with any incoming calls from school and agreed to keep to this. Similarly when other members of staff returned (discharged from hospital) it was important to get them to go to sleep instead of thinking that they had to help. Although it felt cruel to deny their offers of assistance, it was more important for returning staff to be well rested in case the situation worsened in the morning. The result was that by 8am the next day I had four fully functioning members of staff instead of four people unable to operate at full capacity. This made the process of liaising with the hospitals on the second day much easier.
I hope this has been of some use so far. In the final part of the blog, I will go on to look at some of the specific issues we had to deal with over the three days. If you have any questions, please do comment below.