Making it work: Re-imagining education in the world of COVID-19

It all happened so fast.

While daily headlines in early 2020 spoke of a novel coronavirus emanating from China that had levelled a beating not only on the Chinese city of Wuhan but also on Italy and Iran, few thought the virus would have the same effects beyond those jurisdictions. But, viruses being viruses, the regard for borders and nations proved irrelevant. By March, the disease emerging from SARS-CoV-2 had a name – COVID-19 – and the World Health Organization had declared that the spread of the coronavirus had graduated from an epidemic to a pandemic. 

The Canadian response

With the virus jumping from nation to nation, and the casualty count rising, Canada needed to respond. And so they did: within a week, in March, flights were grounded, borders were closed and the Prime Minister was telling every Canadian who was travelling to get home. Like dominos falling one after the other, provinces went into lockdown, closing down the economy and shutting down schools. Meanwhile, Canadians began to adopt a new vocabulary that included expressions like social distancing and self-isolation. Essentially, from coast to coast to coast, Canadians were told to stay home to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. By mid-May 2020, the virus had found over four million victims worldwide, killing seven percent of people diagnosed with COVID-19. In Canada, over 70,000 people contracted COVID-19 with approximately 5,000 dying from complications resulting from the disease.

Left scrambling

While hospitals braced for the worst, and front line health workers were rightfully declared heroes of the coming battle, the education community was left scrambling. With schools closed and everyone isolated at home, remote learning was the only option on the table. In the interests of public safety and utility, the face-to-face education delivery model was cast aside in favour of a soon to rapidly evolve online model. 

Making it work

Where some might cower and declare defeat, educators across Canada worked to make remote education work. Provincial ministries of education negotiated deals to provide resources. School boards enabled delivery platforms. Administrators put their efforts into community building and support initiatives for staff and students. Teachers converted their lesson plans to online formats. Guidance counsellors found ways to reach their students via computer and phone. From top to bottom, what may have seemed impossible in February, became a reality – born out of necessity – in March. Banding together, and with the participation of students and parents, educators reinvented program delivery through an unprecedented act of collective will. 

Part One: The positives

Remote learning? No problem

Let’s start with the good news: give professional educators a problem and they’ll solve it. Guaranteed. In this case, the sudden shuttering of schools and the immediate leap to remote learning online was implemented in a remarkably efficient manner. Teachers, guidance counsellors and administrators who were already familiar with online program delivery certainly had an advantage. Canadian teachers have been offering differentiated instruction and blended learning for years, with many incorporating online components to augment their in-class lessons. While the leap to an exclusively online model was a shock, these educators were able to transition and improvise to make their lessons almost immediately meaningful for their students. Using platforms like Google Classroom, Microsoft 365 and Brightspace by D2L, students were provided with learning opportunities right off the bat. The teachers who were less adept (or not adept at all) at online delivery ascended the steep learning curve and developed competencies relatively quickly. From the outside looking in, one had to marvel at how quickly the education community across Canada made remote schooling work. 

Collaboration with colleagues

There was another significant positive outcome that came out of the pandemic: collaboration among colleagues became commonplace. Administrators and guidance counsellors reported a collective effort among teachers to help each other navigate the online delivery environment. Teachers, guidance counsellors and administrators also noted how quickly they were learning to move forward in a technology driven school setting. Educators were connecting with colleagues within their own schools and reaching out to people around their board and, in some cases, other provinces. They were pretty much doing anything and everything to make things work. 

Communication with parents

Teachers, guidance counsellors and administrators also reported a dramatic improvement in communication with parents. For the most part, educators were more actively communicating with students and, by extension, their parents. Educators were feeling an obligation to connect and the response they were getting from parents was quite positive. Why? Because distance learning was so self-directed, parents were having to give their children the direction that their teachers simply could not provide based on the fact that they were not physically with their students. So educators were not only helping students via online platforms, they were also coaching parents on how to reach their own children. In many ways, a true learning partnership began emerging as a result of the public health crisis.  

Family time

One of the things that surprised a lot of educators and families with school-aged children was the improvement in family time. When people are forced to spend a lot of time together, they find ways to make it work. In many cases, educators noticed improvements in connections among their own children and more enriched bonding experiences at things like family dinners, game nights and movie nights. The students and parents they contacted reported similar improvements at their homes.  

Part Two: The negatives

Remote learning: The Challenges

The inequities of the internet age revealed themselves right off the bat when education shifted to remote learning. Students living in more isolated communities and students from low income families were the first to suffer. This was characterized by anything from poor (or no!) internet connectivity to limited (or no!) access to a computer, tablet or smartphone. Understandably, these students had difficulty logging on and completing their work. 

The shift to online program delivery also demonstrated the varying levels of student computer literacy. While some made the shift seamlessly, others – particularly students with special needs – struggled mightily to take part in class activities. There was also the issue of motivation. Some students, upon learning that their grades would not be impacted by the completion of online assignments, opted out and refused to log on.  

There was one other significant issue that made remote learning challenging. When Canada went into self-isolation in March 2020, entire families were sequestered in their houses with provincial governments telling most working adults to stay home. In best case scenarios, this meant that people could maintain their job by setting up a home office (often at the kitchen table). At worst, this meant people were either laid off or lost their jobs entirely. In the case of parents working from home, families with limited access to computer technology had to share, which necessarily meant that the working parent(s) were the priority when it came to computer time. They had to pay the bills after all. Meanwhile, students were accommodated where possible but, in many cases, couldn’t log on when teachers had group activities and formal instruction planned. This forced teachers to become highly flexible when it came to student participation in class projects and completion of work. 

Guidance counsellors also reported challenges with a technology oriented approach to their work. In the school setting, students would make appointments or drop by for a visit to the counsellor’s office. In the online world, counsellors were relegated to e-mail, phone calls or communication through platforms like Google Classroom. Some reported that video conferencing was either off the table because their union advised against it or because students were not comfortable with having a video link that exposed what was going on in their home. Some students worried about divulging their private information with their parents and siblings within earshot of what they were saying. Meanwhile, more than a few educators worried that their home life might impede meaningful dialogue with students (e.g. when spouses or children walk in the room during a private conversation). In other words, while technology was providing access, it wasn’t providing the safety, security and confidentiality of the counsellor’s office. 

Work / Life Balance

Finding a proper balance between work and downtime proved to be the greatest challenge for educators during the early pandemic. There were a number of reasons for this: 

  • First, remote learning removed everyone associated with a school from a “bell-driven,” systematic environment with clear timelines and thrust them into a 24/7 online world where time is accounted for with an utter lack of clarity. 
  • Second, what took a few minutes to accomplish at school, suddenly took hours (or, in some cases, days) to resolve as email sat in inboxes and phone calls led to phone tag. This proved very frustrating for almost everyone. From students to administrators, the ability to connect in a timely fashion proved to be one of the biggest drawbacks of remote learning. Jennifer Pouw, a teacher in Ontario, spoke for many when she said, “I can’t seem to stay off the platforms. I am terrified that I will miss a message from a student needing help or won’t see it until hours later, when they no longer have access to technology or time to work on their assignments.” The length of time it was taking to get things done resulted in educators working much longer than usual with many saying that they logged on when they woke up and didn’t log off until they went to bed at night. Zoom meetings, emails, phone calls, planning and evaluating put them in a cycle that was consuming every waking hour. 
  • Third, many educators were not only adapting to a new mode of education, they were also taking care of their own children and, in some cases, spouses and parents. Holly Healey, a guidance counsellor from Newfoundland, described her day this way, “I go from juggling taking care of my child and doing my job. My husband works away and my parents are elderly, so I have to watch my one-year-old son while trying to make time for online staff meetings and district meetings, all this while trying to counsel my students.” In the end, born out of a desire to help students, educators were working all day long with little time to take care of themselves, let alone their families. 

Communication: What’s next?

Most educators struggled with a lack of direction emerging from their provincial ministry of education and their school boards in the early days of the shutdown. While the powers that be held plenty of virtual meetings, there was often a lack of clarity regarding next steps. In fairness, the pandemic represented uncharted territory, so it is tricky to plan next steps when you don’t know where you’re heading. However, it took the provinces quite a bit of time to decide whether or not schools would re-open or remain closed. School boards waffled on whether or not to cancel graduations while telling administrators and guidance counsellors to assume all would return to normal in September and to plan accordingly. Teachers were told to prepare meaningful curriculum only to be informed that, while they needed to evaluate student material, grades would either remain at pre-pandemic levels or go up based on improved work. For a profession that craved order, educators found the confusion
of the new approach to learning to be quite frustrating. 

Mental health and family dynamics

Overwhelmingly, educators were extremely concerned about the mental wellbeing of their students. While many students demonstrated an admirable resiliency, others suffered greatly from the isolation brought on by social distancing and lockdown in their homes. Guidance counsellors and student support workers were hearing these concerns on a daily basis. In some cases, students were working full-time to replace the income lost when one or both of their parents lost their jobs. These same students would come home to complete their distance learning well into the night. Graduating students reported heightened anxiety regarding post-secondary acceptances with some universities and colleges either providing a ‘business as usual’ approach to how they selected students while others – like Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador – informing students that they would modify their acceptance process so that applicants would not be unduly affected by the impact of the public health crisis. Meanwhile, challenging situations relating to unemployment, addiction, poverty, and food insecurity continued to affect the lives of many students without school as a respite from their struggles and support staff seemingly out of reach.  

Educators also worried about the students who had seemed to completely opt out of the online learning model. Follow up calls revealed a lack of motivation to engage in schoolwork with many saying that, since the marks don’t count anyway, what’s the point? And then there were the students who educators couldn’t get a hold of – what was going on with them? Overall, teachers, guidance counsellors and administrators said that one of the fundamental problems with remote schooling was they had no real gage on how students were doing emotionally. Were the ones they had contacted just putting on a brave face? Were the ones who were open about their anxiety more at risk than they were saying? Were the ones who had completely dropped off the radar, who would normally be frequent flyers in the student services office, suffering badly? No one really knew for sure. 

The Future

Across the board, educators and students reported a yearning for the same thing: a return to school, a return to community, a return to each other. As Mississauga teacher Domenica Di Capua put it, “Not even the most well-planned online learning program, offered under ideal circumstances, can replicate or replace the quality, emotional safety, or engagement as can face-to-face interactions between staff and students.” One guidance counsellor in Newfoundland added, “I desperately miss that human connection that is such a necessary component for building rapport, especially for counselling, but also within the classroom.”

While remote schooling brought with it a host of challenges for educators and students, the positives outweighed the negatives. The COVID-19 crisis allowed all parties to come to a full appreciation of the face-to-face interaction that only schools can provide. It also demonstrated that learning is built on relationships and not on technology – something that became glaringly obvious almost immediately after schools closed. No doubt the lessons learned from remote learning will be employed once everyone returns to school but it is the sense of community that will allow learning to begin again in earnest. When asked about the trials and tribulations of schooling during the pandemic, Danielle Howlett, a Vice Principal in Caledon, Ontario said, “The ability of the community to lift each other up, to help out, to be more ‘real’ about their feelings and experiences, and to be empathetic, has been empowering and heartwarming. People are grateful and understanding in ways that may not have been evident before all this happened.” While it sounds like a cliché to say the goal of all educators is to always be there for their students, in the spring of 2020 it was a fact of life. 

From the front line: the counsellor’s perspective

Under normal circumstances, during the school day, they know where I am if they need me. This is so incredibly challenging right now. Usually by the time they reach out, things have escalated and are far worse than if I could have connected with them earlier.

Wanda Pelley, Newfoundland and Labrador English School District

A lot of times mental wellness needs are met by coming to school and connecting with people who care. When that intervention is no longer built in, and there are outside stresses as well, it becomes extremely difficult.

Jason Arsenault, Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board

Students are not reaching out to me the same way they would in school. During the day, I would have a dozen students or more seeking support – this is not happening now. Is this because they don’t need the support or because of the remote access/distance model? When I reach out, I get very short responses from my students.

Yvonne Smith, Newfoundland and Labrador English School District

Being able to reach students has been a challenge. I’ll make phone calls at 11 or 12…parents will answer and tell that their child doesn’t wake up until two or three in the afternoon. So, it’s just trying to reach them and connect that poses a real challenge.

Anna Macri, Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board

For me, distance counselling is merely tolerable right now. It is very challenging to ensure students have confidentiality on their end and a lot of home environments are not conducive to telephone counselling. I am hoping things will return to normal in September.

Kathryn Penton, Newfoundland and Labrador English School District

I am very proud of how my students are handling the situation. Remote/online learning and social distancing must be taking a toll on them. The majority of my students have exceeded my expectations based on the challenges posed by the current state of the world.

Nicola McNamee, Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board

What makes being an educator so incredible is the connection we have with students and staff. It is starting each day knowing something new and different will happen and having conversations that are not planned. Remote learning is so focused on planning work, creating schedules, and managing people that meaningful connections become almost impossible to achieve.

Mary Vena, Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board

I feel the government of Newfoundland and Labrador has done a phenomenal job in response to the public health crisis. The school districts have responded equally well with school health and safety top of mind. However, my ability to connect with my students has been severely limited due to the situation. I feel helpless in many ways as our ‘bread and butter’ is the on-the-ground, face-to-face interventions with students.

Trent Langdon, Newfoundland and Labrador English School District

Counselling is not meant to be done from a distance on a computer. It is meant to be done face-to-face in the safety of the guidance office.

Natalie Meier, Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board

The most encouraging thing emerging from the current situation is the way that colleagues have come together so quickly to find ways to support each other.

Paula Nevins, Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board

By Sean Dolan