Reflections from a Principal during the Coronavirus Pandemic
It is crazy to imagine that we have just completed a week of school in the middle of March with about 25% of the semester completed, and students didn't attend at all due to a virus that has wreaked havoc to our economies, educational institutions, and health care systems across the globe. It has been an absolute roller coaster for everyone. For those of us in schools, we lost the reason we come to school every day - our students - and now we are being tasked with continuing on in an online or distance education format. It is currently the weekend as a write this and on Monday, my high school teachers will launch their first online lessons in Google Classroom or Canvas to get students back into a learning environment. As I look back at the past week and a half, I am amazed at how fast we went from a regular day of teaching and learning followed by running badminton games after school and getting ready for a big drama production, to having all classes cancelled barring students from the building. Things have been emotional and extremely fast paced, all with the ever-present fear of having staff or students fall ill if we dont do the right thing. But through all of the difficult days that have passed, I have been reminded of just what is at the heart of a school.
“Well, I am sure glad I took that option on leading a school community through a global pandemic” - said no one!
Although I had been following the news, and I knew about Coronavirus related events in China and Italy, I hadn’t been too concerned about what may happen here in Alberta. I find that over the years I have grown desensitized to potential risks described in the news because it is something that generally happens somewhere else, because generally it does happen somewhere else. On Monday March 9, one of my teachers mentioned that this is pretty serious and we should be preparing for an outbreak here. I took his comments seriously but then I was sure what that meant - should I go buy water, stock up on pasta noodles, and it turns out I should have bought toilet paper. Based on what we were hearing from Alberta Health Services, we were asked on Tuesday March 10th to be sure and have all teachers to get their students on Google Classroom, if they didnt have them there already, just as a precaution.
I remember watching the news on March 11 and President Trump announced travel restrictions with Europe. I was stunned. I went to school Thursday thinking, “this is about to get serious”. I recall chatting with my district leaders about the possibility of shutting down extra curricular activities at school as we crippled with the concept of “social distancing”. That Thursday night we had badminton games with two other schools, rehearsals for Musical Theatre, rugby and handball team practices and a whole slate of events planned for Friday and over the weekend. I led a staff meeting at the end of the day Thursday to share some facts about the COVID-19 outbreak and how we need to keep an eye on students who are ill, and for staff to take care of themselves. We were especially concerned about those who had travelled recently, and anyone who had flu like symptoms. We also talked about students and staff taking home important materials in case they are put on self-isolation and couldn’t come to school for 14 days. Thursday night I participated in my weekly hockey game with friends and afterwards we chatted about how this weekly recreation activity may be postponed for a while based on all of the news we were hearing and seeing on our phones.
Friday morning on March 13, we had new rules about not having guests in the school, increased hand washing information, and new information about trying to ensure we have less that 250 people in a room or space, which isn’t easy in a school of 1400. We held another staff meeting at 8:15 am to communicate the update and to answer questions from staff. We operated Friday under the assumption that school was a safe place as long as we sent home anyone who was sick, and maintained proper hygiene protocols and increased the disinfecting of high touch surface areas. We postponed extra curricular events scheduled for Friday night and over the weekend. We made it through Friday taking lots of calls from concerned parents, coupled with lots of conversations with staff on how to best serve our students and the community during this difficult time. By the end of the day, Alberta had 29 cases of COVID-19 but the it certainly felt like this was just the beginning.
Social Distancing at a Staff Meeting
Over the weekend, I can recall doing lots of planning. I made up a high school “social distancing” document to roll out Sunday night. It had a bunch of information about staggered breaks and limiting traffic in hallways at lunch time, protocols for hand washing and limiting the sharing of school equipment. I then developed a weekly update that listed many events that were postponed for the days ahead that was ready to roll out after I heard the latest report from Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer Sunday before sending it. It was at that conference that we learned schools were closed to students effectively immediately and like everything changed again. We used our Emergency Call Fan Out to reach all staff and share that we would meet Monday morning to review all of the information. At that time, we were told diploma exams were still on, so we needed a plan to keep classes happening online. All principals had a conference call with the Superintendent Sunday night to run through the facts and prep for Monday morning without students.
Monday morning began for me with three back to back to back meetings - 1st with our office staff to talk about communication with our students and parents, 2nd with our coordinator and lead teachers to sort out our next steps and then with the entire staff. Being in a Catholic school, we are blessed to begin with prayer which helps ground everyone in God’s love, which is especially important to me in challenging times. In our staff meeting, we tried to keep perspective and focus on wellness, as well as explore next steps. Tuesday allowed us to give teachers the opportunity to explore some online tools they could use for students, and for us to organize a way to get 1400 students to come back in the school to pick up their items. In the middle of our afternoon meeting, the Premier of Alberta announced a health emergency, closing places of entertainment and limiting groups to 50 people or less. As one of my teachers shared this information, we looked across the library realizing our staff of almost 100 people were breaking the new rule put in place for our safety. We determined that we would organize groups of 40 students to come get their items in 20 minute intervals over the next two days in to get everything students needed in their hands by the end of the day Thursday. We also agreed to stop meeting as a whole staff moving forward, we would switch to smaller groups to help promote social distancing and to leverage technology to connect with each other.
The next two days were busy with the groups of students who came in to get their items, many with sad faces who were devastated about the possibility of losing their year - especially the grade 12s. Students chatted about what will happen to the drama plays, graduations, field trips, and other performances. Students wondered about school and said they were bored at home and commented how much they missed their teachers and their friends. Staff were able to get some items out to students and we also had a chance to make a fun video for Youtube to let them know we are thinking of them.
Over the two days staff attended a number of Google Meet meetings to connect with each other and start preparing online learning for Monday. By the end of the day Thursday most students who needed to do so had picked up their items, and we were gearing up for teaching online. Friday our subject teams and other staff connected from their work spaces, with many working from home, to finalize their plan for the week ahead. It was somewhere in the middle of the day that new information came out from Alberta Education cancelling Diploma exams in June and offering further expectations for what students should receive from their teachers in the weeks ahead. It was another reality check for me, reminding me that it feels like we are in this for a while - this isn’t a snow storm that will keep us home for a few days, this is a whole season winter, where we have to plan for the long run. In a week and half I went from considering if we would have to cancel the band trip to Vancouver in April all they way to all diploma exams are cancelled and online learning will become our new normal for quite some time. BAMMM - that is how serious the Coronavirus Pandemic is - full stop!
Through all of this I have felt so privileged to be the principal of my school, where staff and students showed tremendous resilience, never losing sight of what is most important. Consistently, the main questions and concerns from students, parents and staff have been about people. Yes, there has been a sprinkling of questions about grades and exams, but most have been about the people in their lives that they have abruptly been disconnected from. We are wired for connection and school is crucial in the lives of our students in how they interact and socialize. How students learn and grow as people is through relationships - and it is in times like this that we need it more than ever. So to do that, we are making plans to be with our students using technology. How ironic is it that our school started the year off with new rules limiting smartphones in classrooms and we may end our year by insisting students answer video calls from their teacher on their smartphone to be in their classroom? Whatever does happen moving forward, I am proud of the fact that I work with amazing and dedicated staff who care so much about the wellbeing of their students and fellow colleagues, that no matter what challenge may come their way, they will find a way to connect with their students because that is what teaching is all about.
PS - We also had some staff get their heads shaved as part of a fundraiser we started back in February - see it here on Youtube!