Southill school pupils in the Anderson shelter


To keep our volunteers and visitors safe whilst delivering the high-quality school visit as pre-COVID-19. To provide a session for the 19 schools that had booked visits. 

Our newly appointed freelance Education officer Suzanna Dewey hit the nail on the head during her interview:

“The schools are trying to navigate the new normal. They do not know what’s going to happen each day, it’s unsettling for teachers, students, and management. A visit to Nothe Fort helps the children escape the new normal. The teachers have the chance to sit and enjoy their children. It is good for the children’s and adults’ mental health. They can get on with learning and not worry about all the current challenges they are facing. We provide a safe learning environment where they do not have to worry for the day.

We also recognise the need to provide a real-world experience rather than digital as many students have experienced throughout the pandemic. It is known that 40% of Dorset has poor broadband and some students have no access to equipment to access digital learning at home.”

Background to the Nothe Fort Schools programme

The Nothe Fort offers an Evacuee Experience for KS2 which was established by volunteers over 10 years ago. It is very popular with many schools returning year after year with most bookings in the autumn term, running 3-4 days a week. At the start of the 2020 school term there were 20 school visits booked in with many of these bookings made after the lifting of lockdown restrictions.

The Pre-COVID-19 Evacuee programme

  • 10am-2.15pm
  • Before arrival, the schools use the public toilets in the car park (outside the Fort)
  • The school is greeted by an ARP warden at the tunnel entrance
  • The school (30 children plus volunteers) are taken to the village hall which is dressed as the Evacuee reception centre. This is a half hour session led by the ARP warden, with a video setting the scene showing students life in the east end of London, the impact of the Blitz and images of evacuated children.
  • The class is divided in groups of between 6-9 children plus an additional adult from the school 
  • The groups rotate through 5 different spaces and undertake activities: Classroom – write a postcard, use pen and ink, basic maths; Kitchen – laundry – including grating soap, filling copper and using the mangle; Shop – handling old money, learning about rationing, shop role play; Anderson shelter – sitting inside, sound effects, using stirrup pump hose; Additional spaces – Weymouth at War and D-Day exhibition
  • The class would eat together in the village hall and there was an urn for the teachers to have hot drinks
  • The class would use Nothe Fort toilets
  • The class would not use the museum shop and there were no pre-ordered school packs

Southill pupil puts out a fire using stirrup pumps.

Impact of COVID-19 on volunteers and space

  • Out of 17 volunteers only 8-9 will return
  • 8 out of the 17 volunteers are over 70 years old
  • 6 of the volunteers also cover stewarding and front of house roles which are vital at the present time
  • The physical spaces that are used – village hall, shop, school room, kitchen and Anderson shelter are small and poorly ventilated
  • The volunteers are very anxious not to sacrifice the hands-on element of the evacuee experience
  • Weymouth at War was already damp and during lock-down the damp has become a real problem and the room had to be dismantled
  • The D-Day displays are in a tunnel which would have meant interacting with members of the public which is against school guidelines
  • There is one set of toilets for the public and schools to use, this needs to be managed

COVID-19 safety issues – school guidelines

  • The class is in a bubble with designated staff. This bubble can mix
  • It is best to limit the interaction with people from outside this bubble including volunteers, staff, and the general public 
  • This distance between a volunteer and the bubble is 2 metres
  • Adequate ventilation is required
  • A deep clean is required of surfaces between school bubbles 
  • Between schools, resources must be quarantined depending on material type between 48-72 hours 
  • The toilet area is an issue
  • The lunch area is an issue

How we overcame these issues

  • We read museum guidance and schools guidance regarding COVID-19. 
  • We spoke to our management committee to get approval to run the sessions.
  • We spoke to our volunteers with the options we were facing e.g cancelling, self-led or try and complete as close to the original format as possible. We asked whether they would be willing to come back and discussed the new guidelines and how we can run the session. We discovered there was contention over new measures for COVID safety against the loss of the ‘experience’ lack of role play and handling. 
  • We spoke to local schools to learn how they are approaching the guidelines. Wiping surfaces, toilets, sharing resources etc. We are continuing to have conversations with school that have bookings to ensure we can answer their queries and ease concerns. 
  • We moved rooms around to create more space, removed internal doors to get more ventilation and formulated a plan for the toilets involving set times for the school to use them and deep cleans. We installed more hand sanitising points and bought in enough resources to create 3 sets of items which could be given 72-hour quarantine periods between school groups. 
  • We introduced a new ramparts session to explain the Nothe Fort’s role during WW2 using images from our archive to replace the Weymouth at War session. 
  • We applied to National Lottery Heritage Fund to get funding for a freelance education officer to help with the increased administration and to become the COVID lead for school on the day of their visit. This person will ensure that hand sanitizer is used, masks are worn, and social distancing is carried out. We were awarded enough funds to hire a freelancer for 50 days to carry out the administration , volunteer training and evaluation.
  • We carried out training for our volunteers in a small group, getting them reacquainted with the spaces and restrictions.
  • We offered the first two schools half price visits as they were pilot sessions if they provided us with in-depth with feedback.
  • Once the first school had visited we used their feedback to influence the second school visit the next day and iron out niggles e.g altering the toilet system to shut off the ladies and gents for a deep clean before the school arrived and again at lunch time so they were able to use them before reopening to the public. Then making the staff toilet a student toilet throughout the day in case students were caught short. 
  • We continued to alter according to feedback for the second school visit.
  • There had been debate between the volunteer team and the staff regarding when the new rampart session explaining the Nothe Forts role during WW2 should be included either at the start or the end of the day. We have run three sessions with it at the start and three with it at the end. We will consult and decide over the half term.
  • Our retail manager has recently created a shop order form including pocket money souvenirs and children’s history books about WW2. We send this to schools prior to their visit and have the items ready form collection on the day of the visit. It is helping to bring in a bit of extra income.

The new rampart session with ARP warden and ATS officer.

What we have learnt:

  • Need a lot of additional resources to set up and run the sessions, cleaning teams, maintenance teams to remove doors and move furniture, additional supplies of dip pens, costume, and laminated images. Time for administration, risk assessments and creation of teachers’ packs.
  • Extra resources are needed to be sent out pre and post visit e.g images of the Fort during WW2.
  • The schools require someone to talk to about concerns and enquiries.
  • An extra pair of eyes is needed for the day of the visit to ensure masks are worn, ventilation and social distancing is maintained, and the school group is happy.
  • A video is needed much like the one on our website sharing how we have made the session COVID-safe; this can then be shared at the school amongst the parent helpers and TA’s as risk assessments weren’t shared.
  • After 6 months not running sessions volunteers were nervous and sessions ran quicker than before, would have been good to plan a filler activity for this occasion.
  • The schools really appreciate our efforts, Southill primary have kindly allowed us to share their visit blog with you:

Initial feedback has been very positive:

‘COVID-19 measures were excellent. Hand sanitiser at every stations, toilets were cleaned before we were about to use them and we were kept separate from members of the public thanks to the one-way system and designated areas. All volunteers wore masks when indoors.’  – Mr Prior, Southill School

‘The volunteers are outstanding and we cannot fault the experience whatsoever.’ – Mr Prior, Southill School 

‘We really enjoyed the day and the extra provision put in place made it feel REALLY safe.’ – Ms. Taylor St John’s Primary School

Going forward

As news of local lockdowns and more positive COVID cases break we are getting schools cancelling sessions. We would like to create a resource pack that teachers can use in their classrooms to share our evacuee experience” 

Blog written by Curator Sophie Hinde from Nothe Fort Museum of Coastal defence, Weymouth and compiled by Sonia Sharma, GEM Education & Digital Support Volunteer.