In Search of Leadership

Let me begin by saying the treatment that Dr. Henry says she is receiving is abhorrent. There is a place for healthy and robust debate of policies and actions taken but there is no place for harassment and threats. It is unwarranted and makes life difficult. I know because I have been there.

Thirty-seven years ago, in one of my public roles, a group of young people decided to harass me. My five-year old daughter would pick up the telephone only to hear a voice say we are going to kill your Dad. My twelve-year old son was physically assaulted while walking home from school and all the tires on my car were slashed. We had to have twenty-four-hour security at our home. This was incredibly hard on my family and even discomforting for our quiet neighbourhood. But we carried on knowing whoever was doing this was a small group who would eventually cease their harassment, which they did. Nevertheless, it was a difficult time that no one should have to experience, and Dr. Henry should not have to endure this.


That being said, these revelations should not distract from the reality that parents and teachers are getting more and more concerned about the school start up plan and the mixed messages that have surrounded it. Parents I connect with, particularly those with secondary students, believe their children are being put in untenable positions that could lead to the contracting of the virus. Teachers are fearful of taking the virus from their classroom to their home believing that they have become the guinea pigs simply because the Government wanted all kids to be in school so they could call an election. Both parents and teachers have had their fears heightened by the inconsistent communication from both the Ministry and the PHO.


This has rapidly come to a head with the fiasco at Sentinel Secondary School in West Vancouver. In this case the principal on Saturday informed the community that they had an exposure. The student in question called the classroom teacher to ask for remote learning support and explained that a test was positive and that isolation along with a few other class members was ordered. The teacher had not been notified by anyone of the situation. The next day she began to feel ill, was tested and found to be positive. There was no posting on any website by Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) until Tuesday and not a peep from the Board or Board Office. And only today have we found out surreptitiously that in the last two days the whole class has been asked to isolate. Is it any wonder that people are questioning the leadership, the communications, and the plan? Is it not fully understandable, when one sees this example, that teachers and parents are somewhat apoplectic? People are now betting on how the PHO will spin the Sentinel case to claim it was not in school transmission. This will only further erode trust.


Let’s look at the three concerns and some potential remedial actions.


Communications


I look at what is happening in relation to the schools and am reminded of Jack Nicholson’s line the movie A Few Good Men when he says: “You can’t handle the truth!”. The PHO seems to believe that school staff and their community should be kept in the dark about what is really occurring in their own school. We should have learned from the Tylenol poisoning case that the best way to combat fear is to be forthright with all information. Johnson and Johnson were prompt and upfront about the actions being taken and updated the public on a regular basis. This action saved their company.


Yet in the case of Covid, communications are inconsistent from health region to health region and district to district. The PHO isolated students but did not even inform the teacher of the situation in her class! How does this engender trust? To date we have heard nothing from the Board or Superintendent of West Vancouver. Yet in Surrey, the Superintendent informs his community immediately when there is an exposure and the Fraser Health website is updated.


Nobody wants the names announced but they do want to know what school, grade, and class. The community needs to be respected and that is only done by being open and providing information. Teachers have every right to know if a student in their class has contracted the virus. The community can ‘handle the truth” because they are compassionate and caring for their members and their community at large. Dr. Henry and the government keep saying “we are all in this together” so make us feel that way.


Communication continues to be a problem in other areas. The Ministry said students would not lose their spot in a school if they chose a remote alternative. Turns out that is not reality in many districts. The Ministry said students with special needs would be fully supported. You just need to read the horror stories on social media from frustrated parents to know that is not the case. The Ministry said teachers would have access to certain PPE and hand sanitizer would be everywhere. Some districts are now rationing both. The PHO said masks must be worn where social distancing is not possible. This is not the case either. The PHO said VCH did not post cases because there was a miscommunication. VCH said their methodology was approved by the PHO and they would not post the way Fraser Health does. Today we have a joint communication that looks more like a cover-up and does not resolve the issue.


The communication strategy has been a disaster. Someone needs to take responsibility and develop a clear, open and honest approach to providing information to the teachers and the community. The current practice is developing a sense of complete distrust of the leaders in both the Ministry and the PHO. This is such a turnabout from what existed in the Spring and it speaks to a lack of good leadership.


Fix it! Create an open process that gives the local authorities the right and responsibility to be open and honest with full disclosure to their community. Parents entrust the school district with their children, and they deserve nothing less than knowing the situation in their child’s school. If they decide to remove their child so be it.


Leadership


Where is it? The Premier said, on the day he called the election, that the schools were fine because it was the responsibility of the local Board to run the schools. Actually, he is right about a Board’s responsibility, but he did not let the local Boards do that. It all started when he announced in July that all students must attend beginning September 8th. The Minister then compounded the planning by changing the plan the night before it was announced and said schools must be arranged in cohorts. He immediately lost the teachers support because they knew, as has proven to be the case, cohorts are not working the way they envisioned. Then because of some pressure two more changes were made at the last minute:


1) remote learning should be provided; after all, 85,000 children were not planning to risk their health by showing up; and,

2) teachers would have two days to prepare for the new protocol; a ridiculous allotment of time for all that needed to be done.


All these decisions, according the School Act, belong at the local level. Now we know the Premier was planning an election and schools were obviously an after thought so the Ministry ran rough shod over local authority and created a mess!


The traditional leadership in a district emanated from the Superintendent and the Board who worked together with their staffs. Unfortunately, the Government and an ill- equipped Ministry emasculated the local authorities. With the government dissolved it is time for the Board to reassert their authority and direct the Superintendent to build a better ‘learning’ plan for implementation in the new year which is only two and one-half months from now.


This should consider the broader use of remote learning, the elimination of the quarter system and its onerously long classes, the redeployment of resources as well as extension of the time the physical plant is used with a goal to further reduce class sizes. The Board should present the plan to the newly elected government with a request for whatever additional resources may be needed. To be clear, this can be done as in previous blogs, I have outlined plans that could reduce class sizes to 15 with a combination of in class and remote learning ensuring that the elementary students were in school full time.


This requires bold leadership from a Board and Superintendent. It requires staff involvement at the local level, and it requires innovation beyond our current conception of school! The Premier has said it is up to the Boards so ‘carpe diem’!


Similarly, we need better leadership from the PHO. There currently appears to be two captains running the ship. One is Dr. Henry and the other is Dr. Daly. One says there is miscommunication while the other says this is the way we do things. We will always have an erosion of trust if the Sentinel scene continues to occur. Teachers were feeling fearful before the Sentinel case; now they are petrified.


The PHO needs to treat the education community, both parents and teachers much better. They need to provide better information in a timely manner. Our Prime Minister and National Health Officer have said we are in a second wave and our numbers are way higher than in the first wave. Schools are playing a bigger role because they are in session. Parents need to have confidence that there will be no obfuscation and they will be given all the facts so they can rightfully determine an appropriate course of action for their children. The PHO needs to provide such leadership and recognize and give both parents and teachers the right to exercise their own decision making.


The Plan


Clearly, the current plan was flawed. Its greatest fault may have been that learning took a back seat to contact tracing. Let’s design a plan that does both. Let’s also make social distancing a priority of this plan and get rid of large classes that put students in close contact for hours on end. Let’s recognize that remote learning has a powerful role to play and, that for senior students, their future in post secondary depends upon them becoming efficient in this methodology. Let’s create a culture of caring for the education community where workplaces can be calm and safe. Never before has WorksafeBC had so many calls from the education community, let alone a reported nine formal cases.


We have one of the best education systems in the world with motivated and caring leaders and staff. We can do far better than we are doing with much less risk to teachers and children. It can happen now with better communication, improved provincial and local leadership and an innovative new plan.


Doug Player, September 24, 2020.

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