Many books and articles have been written on developing good communication skills. COVID-19 added many new challenges to what is already a complex area of study. In Vancouver, British Columbia, schools did not open after Spring Break for face to face instruction. Educators rose to the challenge of providing learning opportunities for students online and/or via work packages. Then on June 1st, British Columbia did what no other province or state in North America attempted. We welcomed back all students in the province to school each week for face to face instruction for two days (Kindergarten to Grade 5), one day (Grade 6 and 7), and up to five days for children of Essential Service Workers, while continuing to offer online support for students opting not to return to f2f instruction. This was only possible because of the stellar guidance and direction from our Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry. With compliance from our population, we have been able to bend the COVID-19 curve. The flexibility and skill of educators and community partners in British Columbia made the process reassuring and worthwhile for students. As the school principal, a considerable amount of my efforts went into safety, organization, and communication. On safety and organization, I hit the mark. Yet, at the end of the day, my communication needed to be better. The purpose of this blog post is to give you an idea of some of the things I implemented. I’m very much hoping for more feedback on other possibilities to improve communication in what promises to be a challenging return to school in fall.
Parents and Community Partners:
Support from The British Columbia Ministry of Education and the Vancouver School Board was invaluable. Information on both the Ministry websites and the VSB website was supported with letters home, interviews on the news, tweets with key information and regular updates.
David Livingstone Elementary Website Information was current and informative but it is difficult to know how regularly it is accessed by families. I’m encouraging families to access information on the website on a regular basis so it becomes a go to place to check.
Twitter@LivingstoneVSB – I tweeted out information, parent education sessions, and interesting articles. The twitter feed is linked on the website so families do not need a twitter account to access the twitter feed. I tagged the chair of the Vancouver School Board, Janet Fraser, my school board liaison, Carmen Cho, and the Superintendent of the Vancouver School Board, Suzanne Hoffman, so there is an awareness of things happening at the school.
Newsletters to parents via Email – These were sent home on a weekly basis. I responded to questions via email or telephone.
SWAY – Thanks to Laura Mcclenahan and Karen Lirenman for opening my eyes to the possibilities of SWAY. It is an Office 365 product that allows for a much more engaging visual platform for providing information. We will have three kindergarten classes next year. One K teacher is on Maternity Leave, one has retired and one teacher is yet to be hired. Laura Mcclenahan provided a template so our Early Intervention resource teacher, Sonia Pietzsch, and I could put together an online presentation to introduce new kindergarten students to the school. Take a look. Karen Lirenman shared the newsletter of her principal in Surrey, Shelley Brett, using SWAY. I love the format because it allows me to provide a plethora of information in a way that is not overwhelming. This is the latest version. I’ve also now made the connection with Shelley Brett and she shared how that did 5 short videos to cover Welcome to Kindergarten content. Next time, perhaps!
PAC Meetings via ZOOM – PAC selected ZOOM as the platform for their meetings. Initially there was large attendance and many questions were directed largely at me. Latter meetings had smaller attendance and focused largely on the work of completing PAC business. Meetings were respectful and highly successful.
Telephone Calls: I have spent a lot of time on the telephone during Covid-19. It has been the easiest way to check in with parents. It takes more time but there is more clarity.
Face To Face Meetings: I am fortunate to have enough space in my office for chairs 2 metres apart. It was less flexible because parents were only allowed to access the school with permission. Of course, it was the most time consuming but allowed for the best conversations.
TEAMS Platform – This was my first year at Livingstone Elementary. I was fortunate the previous administrator had set up and introduced the TEAMS platform. I was invited to a training session at the Microsoft Office downtown with Team Lead staff members in August before school started. Thanks, Vital Peeters. It put us in a good position to the pivot to online learning.
Most teachers set up a TEAMS classroom and invited me to it. I tried the “drop-by” where you enter and exit the classroom on a regular basis and try not to be intrusive. This was not overly successful because too much attention was focused on me rather than the lesson. I quickly opted out of the “drop in” and waited to be specifically invited by the teacher. Teachers were putting so much effort into precious time with students, I didn’t want to disrupt the flow. They were also doing a great job of those classroom connections with kids.
Weekly Check-In – Teachers were responsible for checking in with families / students at least once a week to ensure further supports were not required. When that was not successful, I intervened. This made families feel cared about and supported.
Weekly Newsletters – I wrote separate newsletters to students that included stories, recipes or other messages intended to make students feel they were not forgotten while not attending school.
Twitter – I took a big leap and did daily video tweets @LivingstoneVSB focusing student attention on learning opportunities and inquiry questions to pique their interest. I found this quite difficult but became more natural with practice. Thanks to George Couros for the extra push to try it out.
TEAMS Platform: I worked hard to make all pertinent information available on this platform so it would be accessible. It included schedules to book outdoor spaces (garden, gravel field, grass field, playground, basketball court, undercover area) and supervisors for recess and lunch. It also included an online daily check-in, information and minutes from the following meetings.
School Based Team Meetings
Health and Safety Meetings
Seismic Mitigation Committee Meetings with District Staff and Seismic Team
Finance Committee Meetings
Staff were invited to attend all meetings and serve on committees, but their workload was already very large. Representatives from all union groups were included in the Health and Safety Meetings. Seismic Mitigation Meetings also included parents and the preschool/ out of school care service provider. Therefore, reps were responsible for providing information back to the groups they represented. Unfortunately, two of my very active committee members went on leave before the end of the year. Although this served as a hiccup, other members did step forward to serve on the Health and Safety Committee and the Seismic Mitigation Committee.
Telephone Calls: This again served to be the most effective method of communication but of course the most time consuming method. I called all of the staff to check in after Spring Break. I was required to report to school daily as a single administrator so I started riding my bike more regularly to get a physical outlet. Staff got use to talking to me as I huffed and puffed going up hills. Strange bonding times
Email Communication: I tried to transition most communication to TEAMS so staff only had to look in one place. Email was good for those conversations that had been going on all year. One of my teachers was going on maternity leave and was highly motivated to complete her Teacher Evaluation. We were able to complete the process through email and telephone communication and a final observation of an online session.
Face To Face Communication: Depending on the staff member, face to face communication varied.
My librarian / resource teacher, Marvin Muress, is also an early riser and was readily available to check in with in the library. Sonia Pietzsch, the chair of School Based Team, is across the hall and we regularly discussed students leaving the school and being transitioned into the school and the Early Intervention Reading Program that staff voted to implement this year. These two teachers were also instrumental as we were considering special needs and creating balanced classrooms. Other f2f communications were restricted because fewer people were coming to the office areas and I was also teaching groups of students and supervising outdoors.
Contract changes led to more teacher interest in teaching opportunities around the district. I interviewed fifteen people for four positions. The upside was I was having conversations about my passions, student learning and instructional practice, with many interesting VSB educators.
There was also a lot of face to face time during the class casting process. The Resource Team did the initial placement of students with special needs to meet educational needs and contract requirements. Then classroom teachers placed the students currently in their classes into their 2020-2021 classes with attention to educational needs and friendships / good work buddies. Lunch tables were set up in the gym so teachers could spread out during this task that took a week.
The operating engineer and I did regular am walk-arounds as physical distancing in classrooms and seismic mitigation team specifications came into play. This was also the case with the staff with Spare Time, our service provider for out of school care and preschool. There were many decisions to be made as they re-opened their doors for students in the community. We accomplished a lot, very quickly during our walk abouts! This reflection on communication is an interesting process. No wonder I entered July exhausted. It’s a lot of threads for a single administrator in a school of 325 students to hold on to. Yet, the fact remains that I still felt that not everyone was aware of the thinking behind the many decisions being made or perhaps didn’t feel included in all of them. It is also true that I only started as the principal of the school in August 2019 and have not had the time to develop the professional capital to seamlessly navigate through a global pandemic. With time to breath, I have just finished Shane Safir’s book, The Listening Leader (2017), and Margaret Wheatley’s, Who Do We Choose To Be (2017) is next on the professional book list, after I finish The Book of Longings (2020) by Sue Monk Kidd. However, I’m curious about some of the other tools and strategies that other administrators have used to successfully navigate through this terrain. Look forward to hearing from you, colleagues.