Our case numbers are dropping, a majority of people are vaccinated, and our health officials are signalling that an end to our emergency response to COVID-19 is in sight. Recently, I shared some of our data and commented “the pandemic starts to feel different.” As we approach the end of the school year, it does indeed feel different and I have been wondering how can we possible say thank you to all the people who have made this happen? I guess one way is to look back at what we accomplished together. Here’s a brief trip down memory lane.
I will stay away from evaluating or commenting on any health guidelines, policies, direction or otherwise. What I’m trying to do today is talk to the impact from a system perspective. What did “we” ask of people and what did they do to respond? From my perspective, it’s been nothing short of heroic.
Setting the Stage
In August of last year, I published a blog titled Leading in a Culture of Fear. In that blog, I underscored what we were asking of people through last spring and then into the fall. Little did we know where it would take us.
Our first COVID exposure came on the first day of school. It impacted not only an individual and team, but also a partner working in another school. The frame for the year was set before students set foot in the door. Over the next 10 months, we would see extraordinary pressures and responses on so many fronts. It would impact parents, students, staff and our community in so many ways. Our provincial Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry said at the outset that the risks associated with the decision to open schools needed to be commensurate with the rewards. How did those risks and rewards play out over the year? Risks for whom and rewards for whom?
Experiences on the Ground
To our staff, we cannot thank them enough. They were asked at the outset, to embrace the notion of schools needing to be open as a driver to keep the economy going and people at work. The role of education being directly linked to the economic well-being of the province has always existed, but we’ve always been able to say it’s children at the centre. This nuance shifted and without a doubt, children will always be at the centre but being so open about the economic necessity of schools was a nuance we don’t often talk about. If the little ones are not in the classroom, parents cannot go to work. It’s as simple as that.
Beyond the economic realities, we asked our staff, at all levels, to step into schools daily, where some may believe that their very health and well-being was at risk, to serve the moral purpose of educating children and keeping the province going. As one example, in a time of social and physical distancing, we continued to ask Education Assistants to work very closely with numerous children as we worked to implement current guidelines. In another example, for the many teachers who cross over numerous groups of children, they were asked to try to limit their exposure while attending to their instructional design. These examples don’t include our itinerant or temporary staff who move school to school and class to class. There are some who simply didn’t have the ability, or it was extremely difficult, to limit their interactions.. Health guidelines do their very best to provide goalposts but the reality of the day to day work is so much more complex.
Parents placed their faith and optimism in the fact that our schools would be safe for the most precious thing in their lives, their children. They needed to believe that schools would do all they could to implement cleaning protocols and that the directives given by Public Health would be in the best interest of the health and welfare of their children. I can’t think of a time in the past when we have had to say so often – “schools are safe.” Normally, we say that during gas leaks or bomb threats or earthquakes. This time, we were saying it in the context of simply walking across the threshold into school and we found ourselves saying it again and again.
To our students. I don’t honestly know how a kindergarten child feels about their first year of school which has now basically been completed entirely in a pandemic. Or to those at the other end of the spectrum in grade 12 who should be revelling in the closure of their school years and the social connections that schools provide. It should have been a year to say goodbye and to bridge to adulthood. Instead, it’s been a year of an inability to socialize in the same ways or to experience learning as you normally would, with all the pros and cons. They have shown enormous resilience.
To the entire education community and the community beyond. We have inundated you with notices, letters, emails, rules, new protocols, and you likely have heard the term “COVID” more often than you ever needed. As I write this blog, our COVID dashboard tells me that we have sent 7,789 notices resulting from 1606 school exposure notices. As everyone knows, these exposures mirrored what was happening in our community and we know that COVID did not hit all areas equally. I had written about COVID and equity to underscore this reality for our community and families. No matter what, as we entered the year, I believe people were wondering when we would get our first case in schools. I don’t think anyone ever imagined that our district would average about 8 school exposure notices per day for the entire school year.
The Pandemic in Context
It was Friday, March 13th 2020 when we put down our pencils and keyboards and headed to spring break not really knowing what the future would hold. In that interim, we were worried about the spring and really couldn’t yet imagine the coming fall. As the borders closed, instruction was suspended and we headed into completely new territory, we began to rebuild a system to respond to a health crisis , a global pandemic that would cause us to redesign schools and education in many ways. As we look toward September 2021, there will no doubt still be some guidelines and restrictions. So the pandemic will then have spanned 3 school years from 2020-2022.
As we say so many times, in the end what really matters is relationships. I have enormous faith in our schools and in our system. Public education is not just a facet of society, it is the very fabric upon which our society is built. At the heart of that fabric is the people who make it come to life. No matter what the role, from a kind welcoming face in clerical, to those who mow lawns and paint hallways, every person serves in the interest of children and education. The heartbeat of education is in the classroom. We all know that, however, I can’t think of a year when we have asked so much of a “system” and I have no adequate way to thank all who made it work.
We’re there. You’ve done it. When Dr. Bonnie Henry said that the risk needs to be commensurate with the reward, yes, the risks were high. The reward of seeing children in schools for an entire year, where we can provide the wrap around supports we need, is the best reward of all. We have fed children, nurtured families, kept them safe, and provided an education, and I believe a high quality education. People have done amazing work and it’s time we recognize just how amazing it was.
There is another reward out there, and it’s the potential reward of a life (almost) back to the level of social connection that we all miss so much. Let’s hope that happens and if it does, know that you have played a big role in making it so.
There are no words that are adequate to express our gratitude for the year. All we really can say is that we are deeply grateful for your dedication and your commitment. It’s an honour to work with and for you.