Being All We Can Be!

Pandemic academics and the move to post-secondary

Were we being naïve?

While it was less than an ideal start to the school year – filled with fear of contagion, PPE and social distance – things seemed to be going pretty well, all things considered. The concern that the pandemic would infiltrate schools and lead to an almost immediate shut down of the education system had been avoided. There was a pandemic driven blended learning model that, after the first month or so (and a massive amount of problem solving by educators), appeared to be working. Students who wanted to come to school were able to attend classes and those who preferred remote learning were able to stay home. Certainly the days of in class education, free of masks and distance, were preferable to everyone. However, what was happening in Canadian schools in the fall of 2021, looked to be the temporary ticket back to normal until the vaccine could bring us to a state of herd immunity.

But then the second wave hit.

Right around the time that the Canadian government approved the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, COVID-19 began to take hold with a vengeance. By Christmas, governments across Canada were shutting down schools and turning to remote learning as the only viable option. Health officials released grim projections. It seemed that COVID-19 was back in charge and, with the vaccine slowly rolling out, it looked like mass immunization would not be completed until at least the start of the 2021-2022 school year. A winter of discontent lay ahead.

This meant a return to what it felt like in the spring of 2021: isolation, disconnection, virtual interpersonal association with the students educators are charged to care for. It was a highly unsatisfying development, but necessary to keep the learning continuum moving and to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Guidance departments across Canada banded together to make the best of the situation. Here’s a look at what they did to make things work.

Centralize your information

Clarkson Secondary School, Peel District School Board

Jim Kinnie, the senior guidance counsellor at Clarkson Secondary School, expressed gratitude that schools could open in the fall of 2021. This allowed his guidance team to coordinate the most effective and safest ways to serve students. One of the primary focuses: getting graduating students the information they needed to make the best post-secondary choices possible.

Kinnie had to admit, even though they were in the school building, they were still operating on an entirely virtual platform. Counsellors could not see students in person so all appointments had to be handled via email, Google Meets, MS Teams or phone. Of all the members of the education community who had to adapt to the remote model, guidance counsellors were front and centre.

For the guidance department at Clarkson, one of the keys was to make the best use of their Learning Management System (LMS) – in their case Brightspace by D2L. Kinnie says that everything that a Clarkson student would need to know was posted to the school’s Brightspace platform. One of the main challenges: PARTICIPATION. After students settled into the school year, Kinnie and his colleagues began focusing on helping graduating students prepare to apply to college and university. In the same way that students can hide from their teachers in remote learning, they can also hide from guidance counsellors when important information needs to be shared – only Brightspace provides the analytics that showed participation. The Clarkson guidance team noticed that only about 20-30 percent of students were tuning in LIVE to their post-secondary information virtual assemblies. More were watching the recording after the fact but concerns surfaced when questions, painstakingly covered in the assembly, began arriving in emails and messages.

Build your library

St. Marcellinus, Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board

Meanwhile, down the road from Clarkson, Anna Macri and Jason Arsenault, while sharing many of Kinnie’s concerns, pointed to some surprising developments. St. Marcellinus was also opting for virtual assemblies to present post-secondary information to students. Initially they used Google Meets to get the job done, but their first live presentation was sabotaged by some unwanted guests from another school. This prompted the decision to turn to a recorded presentation format followed by a live Q and A for students who needed further explanations. Links to the recorded presentation were provided on Twitter and the school website, guiding parents and students to the actual presentation on Google Classrooms. According to Macri and Arsenault, this is the way to go. Once counsellors get the hang of recording a voiceover on a program like PowerPoint, it is easy to replicate for new presentations and easy to edit for future presentations. They plan on using the same approach for course selection. Macri, as department head, is amassing a virtual library of presentations that students can now access year round. When new information comes to the guidance department, students are sent a notification on their phones. There’s a lot of phone pinging when working in a guidance department that accesses the latest communication technology.

Keep it clear and simple

Woodstock High School – New Brunswick Anglophone West School District

Tim Wright, the senior guidance counsellor at Woodstock High School, felt it was important to adopt the most straightforward philosophy possible in the current situation: how can I get the information to students as clearly and simply as possible? This is the same philosophy that guided him and many counsellors prior to the pandemic. He opted for any platform that would work – Brightspace and Google Classroom among them – but he really credits social media for his school’s success in communicating with students. In the spring of 2021, when it became clear that technology was the only thing that was going to keep education moving, a Woodstock student created a Senior Student Facebook and Instagram page. While the other platforms have proven effective, nothing matches the range of information dissemination of these two accounts. If a Woodstock student wants to view a presentation about applying to post-secondary or scholarships, the item is posted on social media and students link to the platforms that will provide PowerPoints, information sheets, live presentations and tips on how to navigate from high school to post-secondary. According to Wright, the process has been working very well and, because students have been forced into a more self-directed learning style, he feels they are becoming more adaptable and more resilient – which will bode well for them in college, university and the world of work. He also credits the colleges and universities for adapting and embracing the remote approach to sharing information. School visits have been replaced by short videos produced by post-secondary institutions that students can access via the library of videos on the schools LMS.

Appointments made easy

Holy Name of Mary Secondary School – Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board

A discussion with guidance counsellor Kristine Aguirre affirmed a lot of what her colleagues were doing, but there was something about the way she put things that involved a peek at the future. Aguirre, while working in the moment and taking things day by day, sees the benefits of all the learning and embracing of technology that guidance professionals have been doing. Specifically, she give a lot of credit to the Google Form she and her colleagues have been using to deal with student needs. When students at Holy Name of Mary want a guidance counsellor to help them with an issue (let’s say a question about a college of university), they go to Google Classroom and fill out the Google Form that states their concern and provides their contact information. Aguirre works through the form on a daily basis and, by and large, gets back to her students in a timely manner – much in the same way she did on the days where she was making appointments and meeting with students face-to-face. This is where she starts to set her sights on post-pandemic life. In September, when students and staff have been vaccinated, and in person learning returns, the Google Form will remain in place for students to deliver their course requests, post-secondary questions and academic concerns directly to their counsellor whenever they feel the need. This will allow the counsellor the ability to prioritize student requests and make appointments for those who need to see them and simply write an email to the ones that can be handled in that manner. This will minimize class disruptions for many students and teachers.

The future

In the post-pandemic world, guidance departments will assume a different look. A new blended model that takes the forced technology lessons learned in the coronavirus era will combine with the time honoured face-to-face skills counsellors have honed over a career in education. This blended approach promises to make the ability of guidance counsellors to deliver their messages in a more comprehensive and clear fashion the order of the day.

The graduates

The goal of all schools is to guide students to completion or graduation, essentially setting them up for the next chapter of their lives.  All the technologies that guidance counsellors have come to master over the past year can now be used to enhance this goal. As mentioned, libraries of presentations, information sheets, how-to guides and calendars have been created for students (and their curious parents) to review at any time – often with links from the school website or social media accounts to the school’s LMS. Communication between students and guidance counsellors regarding things like post-secondary information has been enhanced by technology. While concerns about a potential skill gap emerging as a result of remote learning continue to linger, our pandemic academics are adapting and gaining resilience that will serve them no matter which post-secondary destination they choose to take.

*About your LMS*

A little bit about Learning Management Systems (LMS). You’re probably using these platforms and not referring to them as LMS technology. However, now that you are deep into the world of remote and virtual guidance counselling it is important to: (a) use your LMS to its full potential and (b) if necessary, shift to an LMS that better suits your needs. For example, Google Classroom (which is free!) can prove very useful but Moodle (for a fee) might give you a few metrics and measurements that serve your school better. For more information on the most notable LMS, take a look at PC Magazines “The Best (LMS) Learning Management Systems” at https://www.pcmag.com/picks/the-best-lms-learning-management-systems.

Looking ahead to the next issue of Canadian School Counsellor, we’d like your help in identifying students you have worked with that can be seen as pandemic success stories. If you have a story about one of your students you would like to share, please contact us at: canadianschoolcounsellor@gmail.com.

By Sean Dolan