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Posts Tagged ‘COVID’

Desperate for Rituals

There is an interesting contrast happening right now in schools.  In some ways, they look very different than they did in 2019, and this shift is being met positively, and in other ways there is a desperate push to return to rituals that we used to have, that have been on hold for more than two years.

The simple view I take of this is that with so much different in our world, there are some rituals that people are looking towards to be simply as they remembered them in the past, a reassurance that the world has not lost all its good parts.

I am seeing that, for example, with graduation events.  There is more interest than I can ever remember.  And particularly from parents who want to be sure that this year’s students have experiences just like students used to have.

And at the same time, there are new structures and experiences, completely different from pre-pandemic.  I can’t go to an elementary school now without seeing some outdoor learning experience going on – no matter the weather!   And I can’t go to a high school without some new way that time is being organized to give students greater control over their learning. And throughout the system, it is clear everyone has a new set of digital skills that they are using.

So, we have these seemingly contrary narratives at play.  The world has been turned upside down, and we are desperate for the rituals of schools – the ones that are like those of our parents and grandparents to return – as a reminder that everything will be ok.  And we have lived through the last two years and learned we will forever want to do some things differently, the pandemic has exposed issues of equity, made us question what we value in schools, and given us brand new skills and outlooks that are making schools so different from a couple years ago.

The trick of leadership over these next few months  is to not see these different views as actually in opposition.  We can, and should, live with a foot in both worlds.  In one world, we have rituals we all remember and reassure the community of the stability of school, and in the other world, we are shifting for the changes we have seen and continue to see in our world, ensuring our schools remain centres of relevance.

The importance of the next few months in our schools cannot be overstated.  A narrative will emerge – one based on going back to good times of the past, or one that says we know better and we are going forward to a new way.  Or maybe a third narrative, which might disappoint some in both camps, that holds onto some of the practices and customs of pre 2020 schools, but still creates space for the new ideas of the last two years to flourish.

As I often say here, it is an exciting time in education.

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I have written a lot about high schools in the times of COVID.  There is tremendous energy locally and beyond to hold some of the new structures from the last eighteen months, as we have found some new models that connected with students in powerful ways.  But what about elementary schools?   There have been far fewer conversations about the lessons of COVID coming out of schools for our younger learners.  

I am left with the general impression that COVID has been an accelerant for changes in high schools, in elementary schools, the dominant feeling is that we want to return largely to how things were before the pandemic.

This really should come as no surprise.  Pre-pandemic there was general satisfaction with elementary school education.  Most jurisdictions had made great strides to adopt a play-based approach in K-3, there were efforts to better connect with pre-schools and pre-K education providers, and assessment and evaluation had evolved.  Most elementary schools, at least in British Columbia had moved away from letter grades, and real conversations on the necessity of homework have been happening.  Now, not to make this picture too Pollyanna, there are always opportunities for change and growth, and shifts are not universal, but the calls that we see in high school for more flexibility, greater access to online learning, more relevance in courses, and changes to assessment practices have just not been as loud in elementary schools.  One exception to this overly broad summary would be the move to more outdoor learning which has happened at K-7 seems destined to stick.

Of course, this is all kind of a gut feel.  That is why it is interesting to see some of the research coming out in British Columbia on experiences during the pandemic.   I have written before about work that Dean Shareski pulled together with secondary school administrators from across Metro Vancouver – Pandemic Shifts – Considerations for British Columbia Secondary Schools and a more system approached paper from a national perspective – School Beyond COVID-19 – Accelerating the Changes that Matter for K-12 Learners in Canada.  A third piece of research that came out in December comes from a partnership between the University of British Columbia and the BC School Superintendents Association – District Approaches to Learning in Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic.  It is this third piece of research that I want to focus on.  

While most of what I have seen written on pandemic experiences looks at school systems or focuses specifically on high school learners, the UBC / BCSSA project focused primarily on the elementary grades in the 2020-21 school year.  To give the context of BC during this time, the majority of students were learning in-class, with students engaged in blended and online learning as well as transitional learning (students who were moving back to full-time class instruction but not immediately at the start of the year).  This research looks specifically at this transitional program experiences.

So, what were the relative strengths across districts?

  • Leveraging already existing structures and platforms (Microsoft Teams, Canvas)
  • Transitional learning provided a sense of safety for families amidst the pandemic (flexibility of choosing when to return to school)
  • Ability to adapt to the demand of the pandemic (exceptional admin leadership, and responsive and supportive orientation of all staff)
  • Support for vulnerable groups of learners (programs to ensure access with technology and food security, unique supports for students with diverse learning needs)
  • Professional development (increased opportunities for collaboration)

And what were the relative challenges across districts?

  • Parental Support (multiple students per household, daycare, software literacy)
  • Student (lack of peer and teacher connections, online engagement, mental health concerns)
  • Teachers (new teaching modalities, varying levels of acceptance, increased workload)
  • Equity, Diversity & Inclusion (increased demand for food services, online challenges for ELL learners, limited supports to vulnerable learners, more challenging for low-SES students and families)

In checking with those who led the transitional learning option in our district, they highlighted the amazing flexibility of the staff and willingness to to take on new and somewhat foreign roles.

What strikes me about the research on the elementary experience is that there is not the same sense of building on leveraging the learning of the pandemic for a changed system going forward.  The stronger feeling is trying to return to pre-pandemic.  It is an interesting contrast and speaks to differences about flexibility, choice, technology use among other topics between younger and older learners.  While the pandemic was a test-run for some ideas that may guide the future of our high schools, in our elementary schools it was truly emergency remote and transitional learning, and the more widely held goal is to return to a pre-pandemic system with fewer changes than most hope for in our high schools.

Of course, I am sure some of you might see it differently.  

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This is one of those dangerous posts to publish.  I know people will take parts of it out of context and repurpose it for their own benefit.  I am not new around here, I know that is what people do to superintendents and what people do in the age of outrage on the internet.

I have been getting a lot of phone calls and emails lately.  I am not sure of another time in the last decade when there have been so many.  I know I get a lot during job action, or when people think I have made a bad decision on calling or not calling a snow day, or when there are budget challenges.  This is different.  From mask wearing to vaccinations, COVID has brought people to the school district. 

Of course, it is not only a local issue, there are lots of videos circulating on the internet of school board meetings, particularly in the United States, of name calling and sometimes violence over COVID protocols.  Even Saturday Night Live noticed, and did a sketch (HERE) earlier this season on the growing phenomenon.  While more subdued in Canada, my colleagues tell stories of protestors at their doors, fights between parents in the parking lot over vaccinations, and name-calling and threats towards school officials.   And this is not a “don’t worry, it is just happening somewhere else” issue, our teachers and principals are seeing increased tensions and short-tempers regularly.   

My first thought is we need to be better than this.  Our kids are watching.  I appreciate there is great anxiety and frustration.  And I also know that school boards – staff and elected officials – are often more accessible than other government officials and thus an easy target.  Many of us spend our careers in education helping students see nuance, and trying to engage with challenging topics or those with whom we disagree in thoughtful ways – unlike all these images we are seeing.  I have yet to meet anyone in health or education who is not going above and beyond right now to do what they think is best for students.  

I also think about a post I wrote on “the hat rule” a few years ago.  We love topics that are easy to think about.  Masks are either good or bad, same with vaccinations.  When I listen to the health experts each week, I feel their frustration as they try to tell a far more detailed and nuanced story, but we do love to jump to things that are simple to think about.  Keeping kids safe in schools and providing rich opportunities for learning in our times of COVID is complicated and “hat rule” conversations are easy but incomplete.  What we love about these binary topics is that you are either with us or against us – it is like supporting your local sports team and uniting with everyone wearing the same coloured jerseys.

And finally, when this is over, I hope people stick around.  Those who have spoken to me about masks, ventilation, hand sanitizer, or vaccination,  don’t stop being engaged in schools.  Regardless of whether you have been happy or unhappy with the health guidelines, please keep holding me and others accountable.  Hold us accountable for ensuring that all students by grade 4 can read, that students of Indigenous backgrounds are succeeding at the same levels as all other students and that graduates have opportunities for post-secondary and other options after grade 12.  And hold us accountable for ensuring students are learning the skills and attributes of engaged citizenship.  This is our work and the success of all students in the community should be a concern for all of us. 

I realize it may seem far more important to a parent that all students in their child’s class are wearing a mask or are vaccinated than it is that they can read or socialize with others.  I get it.  COVID is scary.  The last 18 months have reminded us of the importance of school and the importance of collective action.  I do hope we show some of the same engagement and passions for the collective well being of all students – as I know it does not feel as immediate and personal as COVID, but we should all want all of our learners to be successful.

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Why has it been different this time?

This is a question I think a lot about when I walk through our high schools, see the structures they are experimenting with and talk with students and staff. It feels different.

Now into my second quarter century in the business the idea of making shifts in high schools is not new. Hearing grumblings about the traditional bell schedule, the perceived lack of student engagement, concerns over relevance of courses and leaning experiences, and someone saying something like, “they need to be more like elementary schools” are all views that I have heard every single year of my career.  And with complete earnest efforts each year I saw schools doing everything they could to find ways to think about time differently, reorganize class structures (e.g. for many Socials 8 and English 8 became Humanities 8) and an amazing array of strategies to build connections with students.

Of course, I can see how it would feel a bit like Groundhog Day.  In their totality the shifts were really tinkering at the edges.  And in truth, there was no urgency – for most students the system was working fine, and its resemblance to the system of their parents was reassuring to the community.  And while much attention was given to those really pushing the model of schooling like High Tech High or Big Picture Schools, the model of schooling for most has seen little change.  That is not to say there has not been change – I have argued here before that today’s school experience for students is very different than for those even 20 years ago, but it is not different in fundamental ways.

So, why do things feel different this time?

COVID has upended everything in our world and while new challenges are exhausting, they also create curiosity and urgency like no other times.  But I don’t think it is just COVID itself that has pushed us, but it has accelerated and exposed other elements.  It is not as much as they are new trends, they are just more obvious and really moving quickly.  Here are some other things I think are going on:

Equity – You cannot attend a conference or read an education publication without some discussion around equity.  Now it is a broad term and is inclusive of everything from Truth and Reconciliation to poverty and food security to students with specific identified needs.  A mindset around equity is having all of us question our practices in ways unlike times before.  It has both the curiosity and urgency elements.  When we talk about equity we immediately need to look at our teaching and assessment practices.  

Time – We have been trying to rethink the use of time in schools forever.  In high schools we had 2 classes at a time, we had 4 classes at a time, we had 8 classes at a time, we had 3 before lunch and 2 after lunch, we had moved the pieces around to many different combinations.  A lesson from COVID was time was more flexible than we thought it was.  In our region almost every high school is using some version of flexible time where students make choices over their learning.  For us, it is X-blocks in our high schools every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon where students can make choices over where they need to go.  We have long known not all students need the same time in each course, but we have used solutions like tutors and extra homework to deal with it – now we have thought differently.  Of course, these efforts were moving slowly before COVID, but COVID has absolutely accelerated the shifts.

Modern Skills – I am not really sure what to call this – it is all about making and creating.  While already trending before the pandemic we are seeing a massive interest in robotics – which was once limited to high schools, now having interest in specialized programs from the primary grades.   A similar trend is entrepreneurship.  What started as courses limited to students in grade 11 or 12 is now seeing great attention across the grades.  When students and parents talk about it, they talk about real-world skills and being competitive for the world.   No doubt the impact of emerging technology and everyone seemingly having a “side hustle” has been impacting schools for a while, but again COVID has really ramped it up.  

Post-Secondary – There is some really interesting data coming out of the United States.  A recent story indicates that US college enrolment is on pace for the largest 2 year drop in US History (interesting to see the only schools which are seeing increased registration are the most elite schools).  I have one of those friends who sends me every story he sees about the struggles of the post-secondary sector.  He is saying “I told you so” a lot these days.  Colleges have for a very long time just expected the students would come.  But maybe the pandemic has shifted some thinking – maybe students don’t need to build up the huge debt from the ever increasing post-secondary school costs, or maybe there are other ways to get credentialing and maybe large employers like Amazon and Google might bypass universities and hire and train students directly themselves.  All of this which is potentially fundamentally shifting post-secondary will absolutely impact the work in K-12.  Exactly what this means is hard to know yet, but again this is a larger trend that is pushing us.  If post-secondary is shifting, so must high schools that help prepare students for life after grade 12.

Now, the global shifts and increased commitments to equity were present before COVID but COVID exposed how much we haven’t done and still need to do.  There have been a new list of skills for the new world emerging for a while.  Time has always been a topic of discussion in high schools but a global pandemic really opened the door to doing things differently in how we organize.  And there have been questions for a while about post-secondary schooling but COVID sped up changes taking place.

All of this churn in our world is creating curiosity – from staff and community about how we can do things differently and better going forward and it is happening with an urgency unlike at anytime in my career.  

I am convinced this ain’t Groundhog Day – high schools are changing in real ways right in front of us.  

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It sort of feels like June.

When you are in schools for a while, different parts of the year have a unique “feel”. And while it is not quite the way it used to be, there are some of the June “feels” right now. You feel the energy of track meets and graduation and more classes learning outside.  You also feel the exhaustion that is typical in any June but more prevalent for sure this year.  

It does feel like we are ending a 15-month school year.  The year started at spring break of 2020.  You remember spring break of 2020?  We all sort-of, kind-of, maybe knew that we might not be coming back to fully in-person learning after the 2-week break.  And it was far from a 2-week break, as vacations were cancelled teachers and administrators began to get their head around what school without the buildings of school was going to be.  And from that point in March of 2020 to now, in June of 2021, it has all been a blur.  I know there was a summer break in there, but it was not a break like it is in a typical year, as time was spent preparing, and then re-preparing with new health guidance for September of 2021.  But here we are, with a real sense of accomplishment, the 15-month school year is now coming to an end.  Of course, COVID-19 is still on our minds, but when we look to the Fall we are having conversations about “near normal” times based on the latest guidance from health authorities.

So, a few observations.

  1.  The people in our system are special.  I would often hear of how slow education was to adapt, and then over the last 15-months, we have run linear courses, fully remote courses, hybrid courses, blended courses, quarter in-person courses, and now planning for semestered courses for the fall. And we have been diligent with health protocols throughout the system.   I know almost all professions have had to adapt over the last 15 months.  But in many jobs, you can move your computer from the office to your home and your job is fairly similar.  When you switch between all these different delivery models in education, it is not just the delivery model that changes, but everything about the course changes.  How you teach and assess in a hybrid course vs. a quarter in-person course is completely different so it leads to an ongoing process of reinvention.  
  2. There is a lot of trust in education.  In our district about 95% of families returned for in-person learning last fall, and over the year that has increased to almost all families now in attendance.  If we remember back to last August, there was a lot of fear and anxiety all around us.  There was also a lot of trust in key health officials in British Columbia and in schools to be safe places for students and staff.  And things were not perfect, but we were able to keep schools open for in-person learning all year. I have had my faith restored that  there is a lot of public trust in traditional institutions like health and education.  This does not mean we are not questioned (and we should be – this is healthy), but when there is conflicting information in the community, people turn their trust to schools.  We can never take this for granted and it makes me proud to be in the system.    
  3. I am most sorry for our grade 12 students.  A lot of people have been impacted by COVID.  No group more than the graduates of 2021.  I remember 12 months ago, when we lamented the challenges of the grad class of 2020.  They had the last 3 months of their school career turned upside-down. The class of 2021, had the last 15 months in a constant state of “I’m sorry, we wont be able to have ____ this year.”  And the blanks were endless, they were sports teams, clubs, humanitarian trips, fashion shows, boat cruises, awards nights, music concerts and of course in-person graduations.  Especially over the last few weeks, as some of the health restrictions have been eased, it has been wonderful to watch the community come together to celebrate this year’s grads.  They are a particularly special group.  In general, we need to give young people a lot of credit, they have sacrificed so many experiences that cannot just be delayed but are forever lost.  

I have written a lot on COVID related themes this year (COVID and High School as a Commodity, Is it Time for School Sports to Return?, Video is Changing Us, Superintendent Blogging in a Pandemic and Beyond, 7 COVID Edu Trends That Will Stick, What We Have Missed, Is This Essential? and Resetting Blended Learning).  And I am sure there will be more to write about in the fall.  For now, I want to thank all those in our system for the 15-month school year.  To those I work with who would join me for early morning calls on a Saturday when we had a COVID exposure that needed to be communicated, to those who kept our schools clean, to those who supported our most vulnerable learners, thank you.  We have all earned a summer vacation.  I close the year with this weird mix of pride and exhaustion.  Thanks to all of you reading this for continuing to offer thoughtful commentary and engagement.  

This is not actually the last post for me for the year, I have a entire series of posts planned for the summer, but more on that next week.  For now, I want to thank you for your positive contributions to this most challenging time.  

I am tired.  But I am constantly reminded that I picked the best profession because of the people I get to work with everyday.  

Happy Summer!

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I often have said that every class in the future would be a blended class. What I didn’t expect was for this to happen over night.  I use this space to celebrate many of the amazing things that are happening in classrooms, schools and education on a regular basis.  It is also worth writing about the things that don’t quite hit the mark as this is part of learning as well.  And blended learning, at least in our high schools this year, was only just fine, and there are some important lessons going forward.

First it is important to give the context for our COVID induced blended learning in West Vancouver.  Our schools have had in-person learning for the entire year.  Health rules placed limits on the size of cohorts in schools, so given the diverse electives that many of our grades 10-12 students take, this often meant that they took one fully in-person course each quarter and one blended course where they attended every other day.  Most grade 10-12 students in BC took some blended courses this year, particularly in larger high schools to meet the established cohort rules. Ultimately this year’s COVID blended learning experience was necessary to support student choice and programming.

I should also note that I am using blended learning and I realize it is not synonymous with hybrid learning but we have been using them as analogous this year.  For those outside the school system you probably see this as more edu-speak, and you are right, but blended learning and hybrid learning are actually different.  One of the challenges has been in different classes in the same school some have been running what would be typically blended learning classes and others hybrid classes but acting as if they were the same.  There are some varied definitions on both terms – HERE is one that was helpful for me.  

So, with that as a background, we finish this year with many saying that “blended (hybrid) learning was not as effective as we would have liked.”  And we have data that actually backs up some of the concerns.  

We asked our students and staff: 

Question: If you have taught/taken a hybrid course in Quarter One or Quarter Two (mix of face-to-face and remote learning), what effect has the hybrid structure had on students’ Knowledge and Understanding and Marks and Achievement?

Marks and Achievement

Knowledge and Understanding

In these graphs – the grey is negative, the blue is positive, the orange is no difference and yellow is no response.  We asked similar questions of in-person learning and the results were reversed.  So, where does this leave us?  Was I wrong in what I have been saying that all classes should be blended classes?  I don’t think so.

There was a specific required structure to the blended classes we offered that was required by the Health rules – half students were in class and half weren’t on any given day to reduce density and allow for physical distancing.  Teachers were assigned to blended classes again as necessary given the health rules.  From my conversations, the three big takeaways are:

  1. Blended learning works better for some students than others (heck so does face-to-face) and when they can self-select into courses.  We saw from the data that we did have a quarter of students that saw blended learning as a net positive.
  2. Blended learning works better for some teachers than others.  Some teachers are passionate about notions of flipped classrooms and extending in-class learning digitally and even balancing face-to-face and virtual participation at the same time.  Like with students, having teachers self-select into blended learning makes it better.
  3. Blended learning works more easily in some content areas than others.  Again back to our health rules, it was random this year which classes ended up being blended so we could not go through the thoughtful process of deciding that maybe PE 10 should be face-to-face but Social Studies 11 might work well as a blended course.

These findings are backed up by what was found across Metro Vancouver. Earlier this spring Dean Shareski published a white paper – Pandemic Shifts – that was the culmination of hundreds of local educators sharing their experiences during COVID around scheduling, assessment, blended learning and wellness.  The section on blended learning offers some excellent advice going forward.  

I think blended learning is a huge part of the future of learning.  We have some rehabilitation to do so blended learning is not saddled as only being the type of experiences we offered during a pandemic.  The way we were forced to offer it this year, didn’t match the promise and opportunities that blended learning can offer.  We are emerging from the pandemic with a far more flexible high school system for students, and we need to find the right ways to make blended learning a key part.  

 

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When it comes to schooling everything is essential.  At least that is what we are made to believe.  While I often hear about what should be added to schools, I never hear any arguments about what should be removed to make space for new content.   One of the most prolific of these debate is handwriting – which I waded into a decade ago (and won’t again here).  One lesson from the handwriting debate is as much as we want schools to be doing more and different things, we are pained to think that our kids could miss out by not having everything required in school that we had mandated for us.  We generally seem to wish our kids to have all the same experiences we had, just more and better.

COVID has really forced us to have these conversation around what is essential, in ways that we were unable or unwilling to do outside of a pandemic.   No longer could we keep doing things because we had always done it, or everyone else was doing it in their classes.   We have had to truly adopt the Marcus Aurelius quote, “Ask yourself at every moment, is this necessary.”

I have written before about the particular impact of COVID on high schools.  HERE is a recent post on COVID edu-trends that will stick and HERE is a link to a recent white paper that Dean Shareski produced working with over 200 educators from our region examining scheduling, blended learning, assessment and wellness in our secondary schools in COVID and beyond.  

More than anything else, COVID has really made us rethink the use of time in schools.  In the pre-COVID era, we had neatly organized blocks, all of the same length, with each course the same number of blocks over the year.  Some teachers had this planned down to the minute.  While jurisdictions across North America have faced different realities, the last year has seen shifts from “regular” blocks, to virtual, to hybrid to new models.  In our district, there is now more flexible time for students, and blocks are of different lengths on different days.  The traditional block model has been disrupted.  And while we can’t ignore that these efforts are occurring in a pandemic – the new models are working for many students.  

This year has been both utterly exhausting and invigorating for many colleagues.  They have had to reinvent their courses from the ground-up.  And in doing so they have cut out a bunch of stuff that now no longer is as necessary as it seemed, but they have also been able to give renewed energy to other materials – content and competencies that are truly essential and ones which bring out the passion of the students and teachers.

Asking ourselves, Is this essential?  is always a good question to ask.  But of course, we often don’t – not just in schools, but in many parts of our lives and society.  COVID is making us take a hard look at content and competencies and the results are showing that we are building back a schooling system that is different than the one we had just a couple of years ago.  

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A couple weeks ago I wrote about 7 COVID Edu Trends That Will Stick following the pandemic.  Of course as much as there are things we have learned and experienced that we want to maintain, there are other experiences that have really been missed in schools for the last twelve months.  We know that concerns over well being are very real and there are aspects of schooling that while maybe not directly tied to reading, writing or math, that are crucial.   While definitely not an exhaustive list, here are 5 things that have been missed this past year and we need to return:

Travel – I know travel comes up for many people in all parts of their lives, but it is a big part of school and not just those big spring break trips that groups of students might take to Europe.  Travel is about secondary PE classes going to the local fitness facility to work out, it is about elementary students going to Science World or the Aquarium and it is about school teams or performance groups getting to go to other places to play and perform.  And for adults it is about going to meetings and conferences and connecting in-person with colleagues.  We don’t realize how much travel is in education until it is gone.  Travel enriches the school experience for everyone.

Performance – Practice is great but performance is also a big part of school.  While in some areas performance can continue – if you are learning math you can “perform” on a test.  And yes, there are virtual performances for various disciplines in the arts.  But there are no musicals, public dance recitals or school rock concerts.  In sports all competition between schools has been wiped out.  While training still continues, this practice usually leads to competition in games, tournaments and meets.  And it is not just sports and arts, it is also robotics, science fairs, debating events and many other places that competing and performance are part of the learning process.  All of this has been on hold.  Training is great, but training that builds towards performance and all of the lessons that come from it are really powerful.  We need to get back to public showcases.  

Shared Meals – Whether it is kids or adults, food is a big part of school.  Lunch times with friends are often some of the best memories for students as they build social skills, make friends and foster community.  And for adults, food often bring us together.  We debate ideas over pizza or learn from a great speaker while eating sushi together.  And in our community food brings people to the school.  Feast events or similar opportunities are reasons for people to come together.   The power of “breaking bread” is real and is something that is used so often in schools (though I admit that I am eating a little healthier without the food events).  

Being Off – It can feel like with video conferencing we are always on.  Whether you are an adult or child in the system, we all need some times to be off – to be with our own thoughts.  In the world of Zoom, Google Meets and Teams this feels often less easy.  Having our cameras on makes us feel like we are always watching and being watched.   Being on all the time is its own version of exhausting.  It will be nice to have the option of sitting quietly in the back of the room again in the post-COVID world.

Unplannedness – I wrote a post last spring about the loss of chit-chat.  The argument is that one of the best things about school is the silly side conversations about tv shows, or personal interests.  And while we can create some of this online it is not the same.  During the pandemic our rules in school need to be very strict – it is hard to deviate from the script.  These deviations, often called “teachable moments,” are some of the best parts of school.   This unplannedness (I am not sure this is actually a word) is so lacking.  Over this last year every movement during the day has clear purpose and structure.  And while I agree with those who say in this world we can “get through the work much faster” the real work of education is much bigger than the outcomes for any course.

There is definitely a lot to take with us from the COVID-19 education world and continue with going forward but I am also hopeful that we see a return to some elements we have really missed this past year.  

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In education we often live with one foot in the present and the other in the future.  And this has been more true during the COVID-19 pandemic.  We are both making changes on the go as we match learning systems to different stages of the pandemic, while also looking for lessons learned during this time as we prepare for a post-pandemic education system.  There are many ideas to take from the last 12 months that will likely impact our systems for a generation, here are 7 that I  have seen:


A Nationalized Conversation –  Canada is one of the few countries without a major role for the Federal government in education.  That said, there has been more connections than ever across this country as provinces have taken similar health approaches in schools, and Canadian educators have looked to connect digitally.  With the Federal Government investing one billion dollars in national education it has helped emphasize the connections.  The networking seems destined to continue, and even though education falls to provincial governments and local jurisdiction, from Indigenous Education, to technology access to literacy there are many important national connection points that need to continue. 

Expectations Around Video and Social Media –  Advocacy for the use of video and social media in schools and districts is not new, but nothing like a pandemic to make it obvious that non-traditional tools are needed.  Now, not that they are the only tools, but whether is is sharing information nights with school communities, or holiday concerts or assemblies, video is just expected.   We see this trend with leadership as well.  I have argued for a while that leaders need to be in the digital game, and that is more true than ever.   I appreciate what my BC colleague Jordan Tinney has been able to do, making a massive district feel like a small community through the use of digital tools and regular engagement.  

High schools will forever be different – I often hear, “the quarter system is not new, this is not that innovative.”  And this is true (quarter system is students taking only 2 courses at a time) – examples of the system in BC date back decades.  The best of what I have seen with secondary schools is not the particular block structure but what has come about because of the scheduling.  What we have seen includes:  courses have become less about time in a seat,  real conversations about what is essential have been prioritized, greater flexible time for students to make choices over their learning, and a value placed on teacher student relationship in high school with fewer teacher contacts for each learner.  Now, many of these could have been done without the quarter system, but the combination of factors of fewer classes, safety rules that limit students in some classes, and a widespread curiosity for new models has led to some exciting work.

Health and Education are Permanent Partners –  Health and Education have always worked closely together.  But this year is completely different.  We are in daily contact – and not just at a superficial level, we have got to know each others’ work.  So, going forward these relationships built through COVID will carry over.  On everything from vaping to physical literacy to mental health to just broadly building a stronger community we will be more explicit partners. 

Digitization is Here  – We have been saying for more than a decade that we were moving digital on the education side with textbooks and other learning resources and on the administrative side with forms and processes.  And then, after saying it, we have often not fully invested in the tools, choosing to live with one foot in the past paper world and one foot dipping its toes in the digital world.   We have had no choice but to go digital in many places over the last 12 months, and again this does not show any signs of going back. There is finally far greater alignment between how we say we want education and what it looks like.

Equity, Equity, Equity  – The pandemic has on one hand brought the challenges of equity in many forms to the forefront and also showed things we have said were almost impossible, are possible.  You have seen me argue before in this blog, “if we can figure out how to have garbage picked up at every house we surely can figure out how to get these same houses wifi” and like with garbage pick-up it should just be expected.  On the concerning side, we saw vast differences in the access to tools like technology and also in the access to opportunities during the pandemic.  We also, though, figured out how to get digital devices into the hands of almost all students – something we deemed impossible until recently.  Post pandemic we need to keep this focus.  The pandemic has put a spotlight on where we need to do better – from equity of technology, to equity of experiences.

Learning is often an outdoor activity –  Again, we are finally doing what we have said for a long time is the right thing. Particularly in our younger grades our students are spending time outside connecting to nature and having authentic real world experiences.  Our medical officials have encouraged our students to spend more time outside.  Many educational experts have already been arguing the powerful pedagogy of this, for many years.  Now rather than just building playgrounds on school grounds, we are looking to create outdoor learning spaces.  From school gardens, to urban agriculture, the future of schooling needs to be more time outside.  And how exciting – that school could be both more digital and more connected to the earth.  While some would view these ideas is incompatible, but really can be complimentary.  

Our greatest challenge of the next 12-24 months is to ensure that pieces of all 7 of these ideas are not lost and are part of our system going forward. There will be a lot of noise to “go back to normal.” When we meet with system and school leaders – nobody wants that – we had a good system, that has been taxed by a pandemic but there is learning that can make us even a better system as we look to the fall of 2021 and beyond.  

It is a stressful and exhausting time to be an educator, but it is also an exciting time as we look for ways to have our lived experience match the system we have been envisioning for much of this century.  

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Video Is Changing Us

I know we are all a little “Zoom”ed out right now.  In all parts of our life the novelty of the video call, and the Brady Bunch style screens has worn out.  And I think the reviews around video in classrooms are mixed.  But beyond teaching and learning, there are some changes that video has made in the last several months in our schools that has actually been long promised, and now will probably never go back.  Video has opened our schools to the community in ways we have often promised and now are finally delivering.

Connecting With Teachers

The parent-teacher conference has gone virtual and that is a good thing.  We have all seen how email can go wrong, and how quickly intentions can be misconstrued and a question from a parent to a teacher or a comment from a teacher to a parent has escalated.  The advice from seasoned colleagues is always to pick up the phone.  Now, the advice is to get on a video call.  I have spoken to several teachers who highlighted how quick video calls with parents have helped resolve situations – it really helps humanize our connections.  And traditional parent meetings at the end of the term, done virtually allow working parents to attend who might not normally be able to take time from work to come to face-to-face sessions at the school.  It is a good example of how little is lost by the change of format.  And for teachers who may be uncomfortable with a particular parent alone in a meeting, the virtual format  creates a safe place for everyone.

Information Sessions

You know how these work.  You rush home from work and then figure out how to get your kids to their evening activities so you can get to the school gym to listen to the principal explain the programs for next year at the school.  And then you come home to try to re-tell the key items to your partner and child.  So, now as these events are created and posted online families can watch and re-watch at their convenience.  And then time that would normally be for hosting the sessions can be dedicated to answering the questions online of parents and students about particular programs.  So many times I hear about the need to host these events on multiple nights because of various conflicts, now they can all take place on demand.

Live Events

The most recent example of this was Remembrance Day.   Our schools shared out links to students and often parents of their Remembrance Day Ceremonies.  These important ceremonies are always welcoming of the community, but again, often hard to attend in-person.  More and more of these events are being streamed for families.  Last month I  was at Eagle Harbour Montessori School to see their Historical Halloween live streamed to families.  And on a call with principals this week, plans are already underway for Holiday concerts.  It really started last spring with our grad ceremonies.  There was great disappointment that these rituals could not be held in-person, but overwhelming positive responses to the virtual alternatives that were created.  And while there is power of having people come together in-person for events, we seem destined post-COVID to stream more from our classrooms, our assemblies, our sporting competitions and arts showcases to our parents and larger community.  

These ideas are not groundbreaking.  And we could have done many of them twelve months ago – but we had no urgency.  And the technology was seen as a great mystery. We just couldn’t possibly figure out the technology.  But emergencies push you forward.  The technology has got better and easier, and we have got more comfortable with the tools.   There will be great discussions around lessons of the COVID era for schools, but I think one of the impacts is that we will forever  be thinking about the use of video and how we can open up events to those who cannot attend in-person. And a side benefit for many is that they can do all of this on a more flexible schedule.  I know these digital shifts  have changed things for me – as a parent and superintendent I am more connected now than I was before to so many important school rituals.

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