Social distancing, social isolation, certainly not terms we are used to hearing in a profession that prides itself on collaboration, cooperation, on being hands on and mind on. At a time when connection and relationships are more important than ever, Canadian schools and educators, and in fact world schools and educators all over the world find themselves in a very different situation, one which demands physical separation but also seeks to maintain relationships and personal connections among students and staff. News media reported that 90% of students worldwide were not in school due to the COVID-19 Virus.
The first reported case in the world appeared in China in November, 2019, while the first reported case in Canada quickly followed on January 15. Newfoundland and Labrador officials announced the first known case of COVID-19 on March 14. At the time of this mid-March announcement local public health officials maintained that schools in Newfoundland Labrador would not be closing as they provided a vital and essential service to essential workers and the incidence of and risk for COVID-19 among children was low, that we would instead focus on increased health hygiene and sanitization. However on Monday March 16, the premier and minister of Education announced schools would in fact be closed indefinitely in a physical sense, the buildings would be closed, but learning would continue in various ways. There was little time to prepare for this to happen, teachers reported to work on March 17 and the coming days saw rapidly changing plans for the retrieval of student materials and access to school facilities and teaching and learning materials for teachers and staff suspended on short notice.
In early March, prior to the arrival of COVID-19 in our province, staff at our school, and likely many others, were already discussing ways we could support students and families if the inevitable happened and schools were closed, as we watched schools close in one province and then another, the need to have a plan became more apparent. We struggled with how to best meet the needs of families without overwhelming them, how to ensure social emotional needs were met first and foremost, as well as other needs that would arise based on extended closures and closures of other community resources. Our main goal was to remain connected, to ensure the strong connections between students and staff remained strong throughout this unprecedented and unexpected time in our school year…in our school history. There was no teacher’s guide to follow, no rule book to turn to, we were facing this event and living history with those around us, guided only by the strength of our staff and the strength of our students.
Social media quickly became a medium through which we could reach out to students and families, as schools in our province showcase many fun and exciting ways that schools and families are staying connected even though they are disconnected from the normal way of schooling. Numerous videos are circulating of school staff sending motivating, uplifting and encouraging messages to students and families. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and school websites are flooded with pictures of teachers using various forms of communication to bring joy and hope to our students and families. Teachers and school staff have engaged in plenty of emailing back and forth from teachers to students and families; lots of phone calls –some to say hello, some to wish a happy birthday, some just checking in to say you are missed, and some to gather information. The main message in the calls and the emails, while not always stated, has been this COVID-19 crisis has caused so much uncertainty and angst that connecting with each other is comforting for all of us.
For many educators throughout our province Google’s Suite of apps has been the main tool of communication, of connecting, of teaching and learning. The district has used Google Hangout for meeting online with Administrators to deliver information and get feedback on what is happening in our school communities. Administrators, in turn, use it to have online staff meetings to share information, check in with their staff and gather feedback and stories about students and families. Many teachers, in turn, are using Google Meet as a way of connecting with students and doing fun, learning activities with them. Often this visual checkin helps and comforts staff members seeing each child, knowing they are safe and happy. The opposite is also true as students and families get to see their friends, the teacher, the student assistant, the guidance counselor, the teaching and learning assistant or the administrator. A sense of normalcy is afforded to all involved. Teachers miss their students, students miss their teacher, students miss their classmates and seeing them even virtually brings comfort, joy and a sense of togetherness, it continues to reinforce the connection in this disconnected time.
In continuing with learning at home, without overwhelming families with new materials and structured, demanding schedules, the district’s “Learning at Home: Good at Learning – Good at Life” website is a tool to support continued student learning in areas of interest as well as curriculum content. (https://learningathome.nlesd.ca/) The site has four areas of focus: Well-being, Math at Home, Literacy at Home and Passion for Learning. In guiding families in using this site, the connection with students remains the focus, as teachers know their students, and know how the school closure is affecting them, as they become aware of family situations during this closure (i.e. many families are working from home, and demanding full day schedules may not be achievable for them), they are better able to guide their students towards activities on this site that may be more suited to their particular needs at this time.For many, the first few weeks of this closure, staff were focused very much on the health and well-being of students and families and for many families this will continue.
Just as when school is “in session” in the physical sense, students are on various parts of the continuum of learning and social and emotional well-being, this continuum is magnified for both students and families in times of crisis and at home learning. Students throughout our district may be wondering where the next meal is coming from or how they can be expected to learn online with no access to WIFI, or no technological device. They may be struggling with how their mental health issues within the home environment, or worried about friends in precarious life situations. Many will wonder, how is my teacher doing? With questions like these, a focus on health and well-being is paramount. Virtual guidance services are available throughout the province and school guidance counsellors are regularly sharing ideas on mindfulness and the importance of self-care in times of crisis.
In a typical school year, teachers and staff members are continuously involved in professional learning opportunities to enhance their knowledge of classroom practices of new and evolving pedagogies and assessment and instructional strategies. This remains the same and in some ways is enhanced as teachers continue to work from home. Many teachers are using their work hours, to support student learning, but also to support their own professional learning as they complete sessions on such areas as Trauma Informed Schooling, Feedback for Learning and Online Learning and Google Educator Training. Teachers continue to connect with each other through social media and professional learning networks, through Google communities and even through international teacher communities on Facebook, as never before have so many educators been connected by one event that has impacted our roles.
While COVID-19 continues to prevail in our province, our country and our world, the thing that is certain is that it is our connections to our students, our families and our colleagues that will see us through this uncertain time. We will see lessons learned, relationships formed, and teachers and administrators prepared to weather this storm until we are once again, back where we belong, inside our school walls.
By Kyran Dywer and Melanie Forward – St. Teresa’s School, St. John’s, NL