WESTLOCK - The COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing school closures has educators in a situation where they have to teach from empty classrooms and figure out the best ways to access all their students remotely with lessons and class materials once they start at-home classes at the end of the month.
“At the beginning of the week, there were a lot more questions than answers and our teachers are pretty confident at this point that once March 30 comes around, we’ll have something to deliver to kids and to connect with them,” said Vance Nakonechny, St. Mary School principal, on Friday.
“It’s the biggest challenge I’ve seen in my career as an educator,” he said.
Since the March 15 announcement, school divisions, principals and teachers have been preparing to resume classes in a vastly different environment in the “new normal” — a term being used by Alberta’s chief medical officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw.
“After 24 hours, some of our teachers were ready to go with their classes Tuesday morning or Wednesday morning. With the technology that we have, we were ready to go. It spoke to the professionalism and the expertise that we have in the building to be able to make those changes right away,” said R.F. Staples School principal Wayne Rufiange
The common thread is the admiration principals have for their teachers.
“I’m very impressed with our staff and their willingness to make things work. We’ve got, especially as a K-12 school, a lot of creativity. They’ve all been working hard all week finding new resources, new ways, new activities that kids can do at home,” said Nakonechny.
For Rufiange: “I think our teachers have done an amazing job of changing from a face-to-face format, making those adaptations to be in an online world or even at that distance module where we can give stuff to students to work on their own.”
Despite being prepared to offer continuity of education, directives from Alberta Education suggested they should slow down. Teachers were given the week to sort out a plan for class delivery, and the provincial recommendations for educational focus didn’t reach schools until March 20.
From now on, says Alberta Ed, K-3 will focus on language/literacy and mathematics/numeracy outcomes at an average of five hours of work per week. Grades 4-6 will share those outcomes, but can add science and social studies at the same amount of hours per week.
Junior high students will work on core mathematics, language/literacy, science and social studies curriculum outcomes, but 10 hours per week.
High school students have to focus on graduating and that means language (English, French and French language arts), social studies, mathematics, biology, chemistry and physics. Teachers can assign three hours of work per week.
Where available, optional courses can also be provided, but only for Grades 10-12.
“We’re ready to offer all our core classes, all our options, physical education, health, cosmetology or woodworking in some capacity,” said Rufiange.
The Alberta Ed announcement meant schools like RFS had to scale back some of its initial preparations. Still, Rufiagne says PhysEd teachers would like to continue offering some sort of options for students to stay active, healthy, and virtually interactive.
Schools have policies for what to do in a pandemic, but they don’t cover procedures for proper and equal delivery of classroom materials, or how to – on a small, limited, but successful scale – recreate the school environment via a webcam (where available).
Most of the new tactics, principals say, are technology-centric. There are enough resources available online, various software options and applications that ease the transition while keeping the face-to-face contact, moderated albeit through pixels on a screen.
At St. Mary, teachers have been experimenting with Seesaw Remote Learning for elementary grades, and the Google Suite for older students. Nakonechny says most high school grades were already using Google Classroom, so the transition wasn’t as difficult.
“That’s actually what I was doing, I was trying to connect with some of my students on Google (Hangout),” he said over the phone.
At R.F., the Google Suite has also been the staple, but teachers have options to use what works best for their classes.
The varied socio-economic background of students has placed a challenge, and divisions are working through several option for “old school,” paper delivery of materials.
“We’ve talked about everything from boxes outside of each room that parents can return material to. Once we get back from spring break, the building still won’t be open. … We have a student in high school that doesn’t have a computer and doesn’t have that technology at home. Our method for that student looks a lot different than the majority of others,” said Nakonechny.
Although at St. Mary, they’re still working through permissions with the Evergreen Catholic School Division regarding student access to the school’s Chromebooks, some 50 kids at R.F. Staples have already signed out the small laptops to take home.
R.F. engaged parents via an online form to clarify what Internet access and available technology looked like across their area.
“There’s the irony, and I realize that, of asking ‘Do you have internet at home’ with an internet form … so that first week, there will be a lot of attention given to who’s made contact with their teacher,” said Rufiange, and contact the ones who haven’t.
Grade 12 diplomas
With the details on curricular focus moving forward, Alberta Ed also announced the cancellation of Grade 12 diplomas.
Originally, when students learned they could no longer go to school, Grade 12s and their teachers were told they’d still have to write them, despite what some thought — even at the time — would be a logistical nightmare.
“I was really skeptical how they were going to (run diplomas) given the health parameters we have in place right now, not necessarily for a small school like us, but for a larger centre. I don’t know how they would write diploma exams or mark (them),” said Nakonechny.
“My gut feeling was that they would cancel (them). I was surprised when they didn’t announce the cancellation of diplomas when they said the Grade 6 and Grade 9 (Provincial Assessment Tests) weren’t going to take place,” said Nakonechny.
“It’s not just a K-12 decision. That decision to cancel diplomas would’ve come from looking at post-secondary and having consultation with universities and colleges. It’s not just a localized thing either … this is affecting institutions all across the globe,” said Rufiange.
There was a moment for each school in the area where it was clear that the circumstances are not normal, and they won’t be for a while: locker clean-up happening mid-March.
This is something that each school normally does at the end of a school year, it’s always sunny outside, summer, the real time for a clean-up.
“It was difficult to do the locker clean-ups. You see our students come in and we want to have those conversations but, because of health concerns, we’re not. There’s a smile or nod, a quick ‘how’re you doing’ then we move along,” said Nakonechny.
At Westlock Elementary School, French Immersion teacher Rebecca Wolff got in touch with her students last week via Zoom, a video conferencing software.
“It was a social call, just to say hello. Kids got to talk to each other and show each other things. We talked in French all morning,” she said.
Together with associate principal Amber Monteath, she made a video for all the kids, posted on YouTube, to remind them of their teachers’ ongoing support while they’re away from the school – being at home is something her students find “weird,” she said.
Empty lockers means an empty school, and that’s an uneasy transition for some teachers.
“Everyone here, their hearts are sad this week. It’s quiet, there’s not the same life in the school that there is when there’s kids here,” said Wolff.
For Nakonechny, “honestly, that’s probably the hardest part … you don’t have that energy in the building.”
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