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Emily Holmes - An Apprentice's Reflection on working in lockdown

Emily Holmes is an Environmental Conservation Apprentice for Severn Gorge Countryside Trust, as part of her work towards her Apprenticeship, she was tasked with writing a reflection on working life through the first lockdown of the Coronavirus pandemic, from her perspective. It is a great insight into working through lockdown, both the challenges and opportunities it has provided:

Since March 23rd when the UK government announced a nationwide lockdown, SGCT has adapted to managing the Ironbridge Gorge’s green spaces remotely. To keep connected as a team we have been holding weekly meetings on Whatsapp, and have been communicating via our work Whatsapp group. We have created home-work spaces, planned for managing the sites and dealing with repairs while adhering to social distancing guidelines, and been exploring ways to keep connected with our volunteers and the public. 

Working as an apprentice during this global epidemic has brought new challenges as well as opportunities for creativity. For the past 10 weeks, I have been inspecting and conducting minor repairs on SGCT sites around the gorge, working remotely from my newly created home office, and more recently undertaking chainsaw work with my line-manager while outdoors and socially distanced. 

During lockdown there has been an increase in people visiting SGCT sites so the CEO and myself divided the sites between us to ensure they were regularly checked. While on site we implemented a system whereby we inform the team of our whereabouts using the Whatsapp group for H&S purposes. During these visits, I repaired what I could and reported work that required a contractor. I kept a log of site visits using google docs and recorded observations, actions taken, and actions required. Actions taken included removing hanging branches and small fallen trees from pathways, repairing steps and boardwalks, a provisionary fence repair, and collecting litter. Initially I was conducting daily site checks, however as lockdown has progressed we have adapted our approach now only visiting the most accessed sites that require the most repairs. We decided to only conduct simple repairs ourselves and direct more complex repairs to our contractors. 

During site visits, Russell - the SGCT CEO, started creating a video log which he shared on Facebook. The videos provide commentary on geology, local history, ecology, biodiversity, access, and continuous cover forestry, as well as showing beautiful locations. As these videos have been somewhat of a Facebook hit, often with 500 - 1000 views per video, I have created an SGCT YouTube channel to showcase them. There are 59 videos uploaded so far. To date, the channel has had 263 views, but only 7 subscribers and so there is room for improvement.

In addition to creating the YouTube channel, I have tried to find ways to keep our volunteers engaged, and have used an ArcGis program to streamline our process for logging issues on SGCT sites. As volunteer activities have been postponed for the foreseeable future I have set up a volunteer Facebook group, have been sending volunteers a weekly SGCT update, and have organized entertainment to keep us all connected. The volunteers Facebook group has 27 members, many who provide daily contributions. A few volunteers joined Facebook for the sole purpose of being able to join the volunteers Facebook group, and so it has proved a great social point to keep volunteers in touch with one another. The weekly SGCT email update is also well received, with many volunteers sending thank yous for keeping them updated. For entertainment, at the start of lockdown I held a volunteer photo competition which 28 volunteers participated in either by submitting a photo or voting on their favourite. For the past 5 weeks I have also been holding a weekly virtual quiz on zoom which has been well attended with up to 25 participating each week. I share the quiz questions and answers by email as a few volunteers that don’t join the zoom quiz have informed me they are still enjoying having a go.

We have a very engaged and active group of volunteers so it is no surprise that a few have contacted me to see if they can do anything to help during lockdown. To enable volunteers to contribute I designed an app using Survey123 which allows them to report anything amiss on our sites. When someone reports an issue they have seen on site, like a fallen tree or broken step, one of our challenges is that we can’t find it. The app is helpful as it can be used on site logging the GPS location and adding a photo so we can easily find the spot and see what action we need to take. So far 7 volunteers have offered to collect data using the app. In addition to the volunteers, SGCT staff are also using the app to collect data. I have therefore stopped inputting data to the google docs log, and am instead collecting data while on site, which then feeds back into a central file. 

As we ease out of lockdown we have started to conduct more work on site as a team, while social distancing. One job has been tackling a large pile of logs, which we have been cutting using chainsaws and will then use a splitter to turn into logs for firewood. However, this work was postponed as I had a fever, and although the fever only lasted one day we have paused the work for at least one week as a precaution due to C-19. 

The day we will return to the office remains uncertain. We had planned to return June 2nd providing certain conditions were met, however as the R rate continues to be 0.7 - 0.9 the return date has been postponed until June 15th provided assessed as safe to return. We will continue social distancing measures when back in the office, with hand sanitiser at each door and regular wiping down of handles and surfaces we regularly come into contact with. All events have been cancelled, as well as use of the function room for NHS meetings, to limit infection risk in the office.

C-19 has impacted the way we work and will continue to do so for some time, perhaps some changes permanent. It has created new challenges for SGCT, including funding challenges. However it has also enabled space for re-thinking the way we work and connect with the public and volunteers. As an apprentice my learning has had to become more independent, however it has also allowed me to explore areas of interest, and realize how much I enjoy the role of facilitating connection - as has been the case with the volunteers.

Date: 26/02/2021