How we have learned or re-learned the importance of our voice
Societal inequalities have always been a reality impacting the education of students. We have students that come to school hungry, students that come to school unwell, and those that sometimes simply don’t come at all. This a reality that no administrator worth their salt could ignore. Schools implement breakfast or lunch programs to provide basic nutrition. Technology lending programs or wi-fi access to minimize the digital divide. Guidance Counselors, administrators, and teachers work daily to support students with mental health needs and challenging home lives through a variety of methods. Youth Support Workers and Social Workers provide family and attendance support to those struggling with engagement. The pandemic, however, has exacerbated these already existing fissures in the learning process.
The most basic needs of our students have been challenged to a greater degree or on a wider scale than ever before. Maslow’s lowest levels of the pyramid have gone unaddressed in greater numbers over the past year. Perhaps many of those numbers existed already but are simply more starkly visible during a pandemic. This may allow us to realize or grapple with the breadth of this problem or may lead to a greater role in a Principal’s advocating for systemic reforms beyond the education system. We have come to learn or, more likely, have had our prior learnings re-enforced that more must be done to meet the needs of all students particularly during a pandemic but beyond as well. We will need to attempt to sustain more time and energy as individuals to seeing to the wellness of our national or provincial villages so that our local learning community can thrive. At the same time, being mindful that we too are human and may need to tend to our health at some point.
The significance of a nutritious meal has been emphasized by circumstances that have limited the ability of students to access school-based solutions. Far too many students have simply gone without during the pandemic. Some principals during remote learning have managed to mitigate this impact by offering some type of drop-off options. Those fortunate enough to continue forward with in-person learning have encountered their own challenges. Restrictions and requirements on food choices have limited the type of product available and strained budgets largely dependent on grants and donations. Even when programs managed to operate, the communal sharing aspects of nutrition programs have been drastically curtailed. This may have been the one meal a day that students could sit with others and enjoy a sense of communal belonging. It has now been either removed entirely or reduced to basic sustenance. We have learned and re-learned the significance of the basics we provide and the need to call upon further supports for youths living without their basic needs met.
For those with and without mental health challenges, the pandemic has strained our wellness. The removal of social norms and extracurriculars have eroded many of the foundations of our lives. Our students have lost many of the opportunities to shine that once existed. Perhaps this can also bring attention to those who could never afford to play to begin with. Principals have seen the need for those healthy daily interactions for themselves, their staff, their students, and the community the school serves. We have seen the impact at home and at school. For some those locations are now one and the same. Inequalities in access to supports along with economic and rural-urban divides, stability of family life, and other societal factors, however, have placed greater strains upon each Principal’s learning community. Some communities with access to resources have implemented innovative solutions and outreach that has attempted to mitigate these challenges. The system, however, was already burdened beyond its capacity to meet the needs of learners and their families prior to our current health conditions. The pandemic has been a harsh lesson for many on the need for larger societal reforms that must be addressed in order to support education and essential wellness.
The digital divide has been a challenge brought to the fore by current conditions. School Principals and Senior Admin leadership have taken steps to engage students digitally in a way that would have been previously possible but unlikely to occur. Education has responded with innovation and flexibility to rapidly re-engage the learning process in a new or hybrid form. Support programs such as hardware lending and Wi-Fi access have attempted to address these challenges and, in some circumstances, have succeeded. What is beyond the scope of these school programs is home connectivity and environment.
For some in rural Canadian locales, connectivity is simply not something that exists. In some cases, the rural infrastructure simply does not match the capabilities found in an urban setting. For others, the potential for connectivity is irrelevant when the financial means or home environment is not conducive or supportive of learning. Some students have responsibilities due to sibling care and parental needs that others are not burdened with. Parents have been overworked juggling multiple roles simultaneously while dealing with their own multitude of needs. Our students have always faced these challenges as they entered in our buildings, but the reasons for these challenges have been brought forward and made more obvious. We no longer share a single building or classroom that is experienced by all, but rather an interconnected web of classrooms whose conditions range from optimal to nearly intolerable.
While each of these factors impact the Principal’s community of learners, many exist in larger systems of governance and society. For the Principal, advocacy and providing a voice for those in need becomes all the more paramount in our current global environment. While the voice may have already run hoarse from years of advocacy, the current global crisis may yet serve as an opportunity for change. Even those who have spoken out for years on behalf of their students may find renewed vigor if suddenly we find a more accepting audience. The biggest challenge may be fighting off the fatigue of the pandemic in order to do so. Combatting this exhaustion, the role of advocacy can pave the way for potential reforms long desired.
Andrew J. Collins is a Vice-Principal with Mountain View School Division. He is a married father of 4 children with degrees from Brandon University (MEd), Brock University (BEd), and Queens University (BA).