Outlook and local area high school principals discuss pandemic impact

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve heard about how students are adjusting at home, whether it’s hitting the books via new-age technology or even getting dirty with some good old-fashioned hands-on learning.

But what about those who are in charge at some of these schools?

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The Outlook reached out to a number of high school principals, including those in communities that dot the surrounding Lake Diefenbaker region, inquiring about how they’ve been adjusting to the pandemic and their thoughts on a number of topics.

One of those topics is high school graduation, and whether or not there may be plans to try and pull something off as it relates to marking the end of high school for the departing Grade 12 students.

What follows are a handful of questions posed by The Outlook, responded to by the principals of Outlook High School, Dinsmore Composite School, Lucky Lake School, and Loreburn Central School.

This reporter thanks all of them in advance for their participation.

Question:  How have staff been coping with no students in the classrooms?  Does it force teachers to think "outside the box"?

Walter Wood, Outlook High School:  “It has been tough for staff members to adjust to this new reality in which we find ourselves.  Most of us thrive on the personal, face-to-face connections with students and to not have those on a daily basis is difficult for most because we are concerned that everyone is doing well and it is tough not to get that feedback on a daily basis.  This situation does force everyone to think outside the box.  We are trying to connect with students that have different situations at home, different access to technology, if they have access at all, and we are trying to meet all students where they are.  Students are at different places socially, emotionally and we recognize that for some, school is not the most important priority every day.  At the end of the day, we want to make sure that all of our students are safe and healthy.  If school has a role in adding a bit of normalcy to life, then we will be there to assist in any way that we can.”

Terry Hall, Lucky Lake School:  “These unprecedented times have forced all teachers, students and parents to think ‘outside the box’. Our teachers have worked hard to create ways for students and parents to have access to supplemental learning opportunities, whether it be through Microsoft Teams, SeeSaw, YouTube or sending paper packages home for students.”

Jade Ballek, Dinsmore Composite School:  “Teachers in the Sun West School Division, I believe, are well-positioned to shift into remote teaching as we have access to technology and have been using various online tools for a number of years. For example, some teachers are using online portfolio software called See Saw to communicate with students and families. We are also using various Microsoft tools such as One Note which is like an online classroom binder. Students can submit assignments electronically, often by taking pictures of them, and then teachers can use an iPad to mark and return assignments. We use Microsoft Teams for online class "meetings" where the teacher and students can get together to discuss a story they have read or to ask questions if they are having trouble with anything. The online whiteboard tool is another way that students can get some one-on-one help. Certainly, we are learning a lot about how to use these tools in new ways to support at-home learning. However, in many cases, we had already been using these online tools in our classrooms so the adjustment has been more in terms of how we can help our parents with this shift.”

Jill Long, Loreburn Central School:  “I think teachers are thinking outside the box all the time, but this has given teachers the opportunity to learn a lot of technology skills.”

Question:  Are teachers staying connected with students at home, such as Zoom meetings and online learning guides?  Staying connected to the community, as well?

Walter:  “Staff are trying to stay connected in a number of different ways.  In Sun West, we use Microsoft Teams to connect with students as this platform allows us to have video chats, digital chats, post assignments and create a notebook for each class that students can access when they are available.  Staff are also trying to connect with families through email, text, calls and through our social media accounts.  I would encourage families that if they need anything from us to please contact any teacher or administrator by email and we will do our best to get them what they need.”

Terry:  “We are staying connected through email, live stream meetings, notes of gratitude or simply picking up the phone to check in.”

Jade:  “Staying connected is a priority for our teachers and at DCS, we are hosting a number of online classes. Students are joining in for math and science chats, English Language Arts discussions, and our elementary classes are still doing a virtual form of show and tell to stay connected. Even our Kindergarten students have a weekly chat! It's been so great to see and hear our students and often see their siblings and parents too! As a school, we are also sending out weekly wellness activities for families, some fun "get-moving" ideas for students, as well as ideas to keep kids reading. Our Educational Assistants have also been busy working one-on-one with students online to help with reading and math. It's truly been a team effort!”

Jill:  “We are trying our best to stay connected. We are using Microsoft Teams as our communication tool, for chatting, as well as virtual conferencing. Microsoft teams also has built a grading function which allows students to submit work right in the program.”

Question:  Do you find that students might be more engaged because their learning now uses new-age technology that they can access at home?

Walter:  “The answer to your question really depends on the student.  We have a number of students that really enjoy a virtual environment in which to learn but I also think that most students enjoy the teacher-student, student-student connections that they get everyday.  Since we live in a rural community, we also know that a lot of our students don't have the best access to an internet connection so we have to make sure that those families are not limited to learning opportunities through no fault of their own.”

Terry:  “Our school staff desperately miss our students and I dare to say they are missing us in return! We look forward to the day we can all be together again under one roof.”

Jade:  “Not all of our families have good internet access, so we have been distributing paper-based learning packages as requested. Once a week, our bus drivers drop off packages with rural students, and students living in town get porch delivery. While most of our students are accessing materials online, this has been a great option for some families.”

Jill:  “There is a continuum of engagement for all students. Not quite sure how to answer this. Sorry!”

Question:  Are you finding that parents are more actively involved in their child's learning?

Walter:  “I know that parents are very involved in their children's learning.  We appreciate the challenges that parents are facing with trying to balance everything that is happening during this time.  As a staff we are sometimes hesitant to know how often we should be in contact with our families because we don't want to overwhelm them but we also want to make sure that we care about them and don't want it to appear as if we have forgotten about our families.  I would like to encourage our families that if they need something from us that we are not already doing, please reach out to any staff member and let us know what you need.  We will do our best to get you what you need!”

Terry:  “Lucky Lake School and the community are doing the best they can to ensure our families are happy and safe; when those things are in place, learning will happen. We can honestly say we are proud of the efforts our students and parents have shown as they continue to be engaged in learning!”

Jade:  “I would have to say that our parents are doing a terrific job in such stressful circumstances. Each family has a unique set of circumstances that they are trying their best to navigate through. Our job as a school is to provide the support needed to make this as manageable as possible.”

Jill:  “Parents are seeing their student as a learner. There is a continuum here as well.  We have had some very positive experiences. Teachers are really looking forward to chatting with their students each week.  Parents and teachers are in communication lots more. Parents have been very supportive in helping students access everything they need.  We appreciate that our parents even more during this hard time.”

Question:  Have there been any discussions about finding a way to mark the graduation of Grade 12 students?

Walter:  “We have looked at alternatives for our graduation ceremony.  Currently, our two Grade 12 Grad Chairs are surveying their fellow students with thoughts on a couple of ideas that have been discussed.  The Grad Advisors will be meeting with them next week to discuss the feedback from the students and try and move forward with planning something for June or the fall.”

Terry:  “We are continuing to navigate what graduation will look like in the months to come. As this unfolds, our desire remains the same, to celebrate and recognise our students’ accomplishments.”

Jade:  “As a K-12 school, there are a number of spring events that we are in the processes of planning, including Grade 12 Prom, Kindergarten graduation, and our Student Showcase. None of the plans for these events have been finalized yet, but we still plan to mark these important milestones and recognize the achievements of our students in some manner.”

Jill:  “We have had a couple of discussions with our Grade 12's  We have a few plans in the works, just nothing confirmed yet.  It will hopefully allow for our grads to have a meal together, there is only 10 - so we can arrange that while social distancing.  We will also have something where we community members will be able to ‘drive by’ our graduates and offer them congrats.”

© The Outlook

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