There is no doubt that opening schools in British Columbia on June 1st was a gargantuan effort. For principals and teachers is was fraught with stress, exhaustion, and extremely sore neck muscles. For students it was well worth the effort. We are lucky to have Dr. Bonnie Henry, as well as a Health Minister and Premier who defer to her background knowledge and judgement. Although educators headed back to school with trepidation and lots of questions, it was with the assurance that our leadership was solid and well informed. The student return to class was voluntary and part-time. Dr. Henry made it clear that staff were required to do daily health checks for themselves, and parents were required to do daily health checks for their child. Anyone demonstrating symptoms was to stay home. Everyone was required to practice physical distancing and limit group meetings to 50. It was clear from the onset that final grades would not be impacted by whether learning continued at school or at home.
The first mandate for principals and vice principals was to ensure maximum physical distance and minimize physical contact. The biggest challenge was to welcome students back to school without causing them worry by the significant expectations for physical distancing and not touching each other. Our Vancouver School Board superintendent, Suzanne Hoffman, made good use of social media and news interviews to inform parents about the return to schools in Vancouver public schools. The school district was helpful in its choice of bright yellow masking tape for inside directions and hot pink duct tape for outside line ups. Bright happy colours made traffic lines and spaces to line up welcoming rather than scary. Signage was versatile, helpful and delivered to us to use at our discretion for the opening. Pool noodles, long dollar store butterfly nets and ribbon dance wands all became part of the language of physical distancing in our school. The dollar store became my friend in my quest for friendly reminders! Our students will take with them many COVID-19 referents for 2 metres.
How students entered the building, was determined by the architecture of the building. I was able to divide the upper floor in two and have students enter through the north and west entrance of the school. The kindergarten students on the main floor had their own entrance. The rest of the students on the main floor entered through the east entrance. The students on the ground level, entered through the outside door directly to their classroom. Arrows on the floor, traffic lines placed perfectly by my husband, and dollar store signs reading “Moose crossing. Do Not Enter” flanked closed doorways. One little man in kindergarten walked up to me to let me know that he had not been going through the closed doors because he knew it was a moose crossing. He then asked me if I had really got a moose to help everyone stick to the right path. That is what I LOVE about working with little kids. Once you have their trust, they believe you will do anything to help them along the way – even get a friendly moose to patrol the school halls.
Washing hands thoroughly and frequently was already integrated into classroom teaching before our March Break, as was wiping down frequently touched surfaces. We added procedures to control numbers in washrooms by hanging a laminated two-sided circle from a string. If the green side faced out, it meant the washroom was free to enter. The red side meant, please wait until the other person exits. Students in kindergarten to Grade 5 returned two days a week to their regular classroom. Students in Grade 6 and up, returned once a week to their regular classroom. Children of essential service workers often returned 5 days a week and spent their additional days in multi-aged groups. The provincial average for a return to school was about 30%. In our school, it was 50%. As families became more comfortable and the Essential Service Worker category broadened, so did the number of students return to school. We were able to ensure that there were never more than 15 students in a class. Teachers rearranged desks and tables to ensure maximum spacing. Students used their own pencils, rulers, and in some cases Lego. Teachers were able to engage students in learning in a way that is difficult online. They were also able to be responsive to students needs and incorporate important social emotional learning. Teachers made the kids in their classes feel safe and relieved the tedium, boredom and isolation that many students shared they were experiencing at home.
We had been using the Office365 TEAMS platform all year as a staff. Teachers were familiar with accessing channels and files. After Spring Break, we went full steam with online meetings, setting up classrooms to share student assignments and private channels for students to submit work. I also put daily staff sign in on TEAMS channels, as well as schedules for recess, lunch, and outdoor spaces during instructional time. Scheduling was complicated because groups of 15 students needed to be supervised by an adult in different areas of the school. They also needed to be taught activities and games that did not involve the contact of favourite games like soccer and tag. I walked outside at one point and realized that there were nine kids on the gravel field with a supervisor and eleven on the grass field on the other side of the school with a different supervisor. They couldn’t see each other, let alone touch each other. At this point, I realized I could relax some of my procedures based on the number of kids in the school on a given day.
The very best thing about kids walking through the doors of the school was it re-established a sense of school community. The laugher and joy were back instantly. Students were again able to enjoy face to face contact with adults and other students and socialize. They also had trusted adults to navigate how they could live in a world with COVID-19 as a presence. They adapted quickly to new rules for maximizing physical distancing. Air hugs and air high fives became common. Some students wore face masks. Some teachers wore masks or face shields.
The most unusual thing in classrooms was the silence that often pervaded the classrooms. Kids were focused on their work. The kids were hungry for school and they threw themselves into their work. This is not the typical tone of June. When asked, kids overwhelmingly said they would prefer school over summer holidays. A first in my experience of June in elementary schools to university.
Back to school was hardest for our Grade 7 students. The rights of passage from elementary school to secondary school are traditionally large group events, definitely over the 50-mark discouraged by Dr. Bonnie Henry. The teachers did a great job with the virtual celebration, but it could not parallel the excitement of a face to face event or fieldtrips.
There are still many unknowns about how school will look in September. Large rallies well beyond the recommended size of 50, relaxed rules for social distancing, and an opening up of travel will impact how COVID-19 plays out in our province. We’ll need to wait and pivot as has become our habit. Apparently, Dr. Bonnie Henry will be giving us some direction at the end of August. Our only constant in the past three months has been that things could change, and we may need to pivot once again. We learned that we could quickly implement changes when called to do so in the best interest of our students. I am feeling confident that we will be able to adapt and do what we need to do safely.
The biggest thing that will need to change moving forward is the expectations teachers have put on themselves. After Spring Break, teachers engaged in an unprecedented rate of change to ensure their students felt supported emotionally, physically and educationally online. The TEAMS platform was fully implemented district wide. In some cases, teachers continued with My Blueprint or Showbie which they been using all year. In all cases, the learning curve was substantial. Then just when they hit their stride, we pivoted to a hybrid online and face to face context. However rather than pulling back on online offerings, that was maintained and f2f became an additional layer. Clearly that is not sustainable. My mantra at our online staff meetings, our Health and Safety Meetings, our School Based Team Meeting et al., was BREATHE. Our educators are entering the summer months in much need of rest and rejuvenation. As we return to school in September in any form, our plan will need to incorporate practices that ensure our children’s needs are being met in a way that is sustainable over the time for our educators.
In the words of Dr. Bonnie Henry, our Provincial Health Officer of rock star status, as school communities, we will need to – Be Calm. Be Kind. Be Safe. Our homework over the summer is to consider the possibilities for what that will look like as we face our “new normal” during COVID-19 times.