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"Plans are Nothing; Planning is everything!"

My last blog suggested we start school on October 1st to give our schools and staff time to improve the re-opening plan and prepare for the students return. The delay seems justified as our Covid cases continue to rise, the Labour Day weekend could worsen the situation and more studies are demonstrating that children are much greater spreaders than we thought. More importantly, our teachers deserve the support, considering we are asking them to work with dramatically different teaching conditions and methods.

The current plan is restricted by the strictures placed upon local Boards by the Ministry with requirements such as ‘all students must be in full time attendance’. The strictures are created by a Minister with no educational background and a Deputy who has been a lifetime government bureaucrat. They are both likeable gentlemen, but they could certainly benefit from some front-line educator expertise.

The plan was further developed by administrators, some of whom have not been in a classroom in years, without the input of local classroom teachers, who are on the front-line dealing directly with the children. This is a grievous error for it is the front-line teachers and assistants who can offer the best advice on how to deal with each local situation. This is where essential expertise lies and these are the people who are most at peril in a school during a pandemic. We need to give them time to construct a better model with a local flavour and to prepare for a significantly different teaching situation.

I would recommend the three weeks be structured as follows:

Week 1: Create and Design

I have taught the Masters of Education program for three universities in three different provinces and in the United States. One task given to teams of teachers in my class was, over a three-day period, create the school of the future including delivery models, teaching methodology, content, and time and space requirements for their configuration. THE CREATIVITY AND INNOVATION THAT OCCURRED WAS PHENOMENAL!

I believe this exercise should be given to each school staff. Staff teams, meeting physically distanced within larger spaces in each building, should be asked to create the ‘Pandemic School’ for their situation. The only stricture at this point should be the pandemic health safety requirements of WorksafeBC. Each team would share their model on the third day and over the next two days the staff would combine the best of each team’s work to complete a practical design for their own school and community. Generation of a realistic design would be informed by administrators who could advise on budgetary and other limitations. In this way we would use the expertise of those who are required to work directly with the students and by doing so create the buy in that does not currently exist.

(Just a note: The schedule here would have the staff report to school to complete this task on September 12th. This would be classed as one of the district professional days for which a day in lieu of would be attached to a weekend in the winter when teachers often need a break.)

Currently the plans that have been revealed for secondary schools use the old quarter system. I would point out that this has some students, still in full classes, sitting in a desk in close proximity and enclosed spaces for two hours and twenty minutes with the expectation that the subject teacher can motivate them for that length of time. Moreover, students may not have contact with that subject again for another year and a half. Is this really sound pedagogy? Consider the potential difference in quality for those students who get the so called ‘master teacher’ from those who might have the beginning teacher. I bet, with all staff involved, we can design something better! I also believe we could create a better model for contact tracing than the artificial cohort structure thrown in at the last minute.

Week 2: Train and Configure

My son is an aviation technologist in the RCAF. When he is posted to a different base and aircraft, let’s say from the F-18 to the Aurora, he trains for three to nine months on the new systems. Lives depend on him doing things right!

All the current district plans that have been revealed call for remote learning as well as longer teaching blocks in the secondary school. This is going to require completely new teaching methodologies and systems. The daily school operation at both elementary and secondary requires a whole new approach to interacting with children. Lives depend on us getting this right and the government thinks this can be done in two days! I have worked in education for fifty-two years and I am telling you that this is madness!

This second week should be used to enable staff to train on whatever delivery platform is going to be used. I think of Courtenay School District where Kara Dawson is the District info-tech support person. This teacher won the Prime Minister’s Award of Excellence, is highly respected by her colleagues and could give them three days of practical training in the use of any platform; be it Microsoft Teams, Google for Education, or Zoom. This training would be both professional and practical and avoid some of the pitfalls and stress that befell staff in June. Every district has amazing expertise within its staff so this training can be locally based to fit that District’s needs. However, it is not just training that is needed.

Schools and staff need to configure their classes and staff assignments. Counsellors need to reconfigure student timetables. Is the school going to have one master teacher deliver the remote lessons with the other teachers supporting the in-class time? Is the school going to record the lessons and ask their local cable provider to broadcast them? So many options and decisions, but these decisions need thoughtful consideration and they need to be made by each department within each school because responsibility for the implementation rests in their hands.

The classrooms need to be configured as well. This must be done with the maximum safety for the children in mind. Maybe, the gym in elementary schools should be a classroom space and platooning for intermediate classes should be considered. How can physical distancing be maximized and what staff could be added from the district or administrative ranks to reduce class size? Do we need two administrators in a severely reduced International Program or can one of them return to the classroom to reduce class size? Can we use outdoor space, as they are doing in Denmark, or community space that might improve distancing? Should school buses be configured as wi-fi hot spots and parked in areas where internet access is difficult for students? Again, so many decisions, all affecting how well we deal with the pandemic.

All of this takes time and while teachers will not get the months my son does, they must be given more consideration than at present. Both the learning and safety of our children will be improved if teachers and staff are given this time to train and configure.

Week 3: Plan and Prepare

The third week will give teachers the planning and preparation time they desperately need to deliver the best possible lessons to our children in new and challenging circumstances. Teachers must first be prepared for teaching children to observe all health and safety protocols. These protocols are new to everyone in the school setting and ensuring children are proficient in everything from hand washing to mask wearing is essential. Staff need to understand scenarios that may arise and should be coached by the appropriate health personnel in coping with the unexpected.

Teachers also need to have time to plan their first lessons particularly to deal with the longer teaching time periods being suggested. This will require a variety of new strategies to keep students engaged. Similarly, they need time to prepare lessons for remote delivery on platforms upon which they have just been trained. Indeed, they will need to work together to create repositories of on-line resources that need to be immediately available for both themselves and their students.

Dwight D. Eisenhower once said: “plans are nothing; planning is everything”! We need to heed his advice and give our front-line staff, the teachers and teaching assistants; the principals and vice-principals, the planning time that will ensure a safe and successful start to this pandemic school year.

We all want schools open in a safe and timely manner. We all want to protect our children, our school personnel and our community from contracting the virus and suffering potential long-term consequences. We have an obligation to our front-line workers to ensure they are given the best possible working conditions as well as the necessary preparation time to make them successful. We need to reduce fear and anxiety in the community and achieve buy in from teachers. The only way to do this is to involve the teachers and other school personnel in a meaningful way in creating their ‘pandemic school’. Three weeks is miniscule in a student’s school life but may be gigantic in this year’s success.

There is a reason Superintendents are now hired by the local School Board. Both are supposed to be accountable to their local community not the Ministry. Each local School Board is responsible for submitting their District’s calendar to the Ministry. Unusual circumstances call for unusual measures. This pandemic year calls for unusual measures. It is time for local Boards and Superintendents to submit to the Ministry an amended calendar and demand this planning time to support their staff, students, and community.

Copyright, Doug Player, August 22, 2020.

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