In the face of uncertainty, BC schools prioritize student well-being and move forward in confidence with on-campus learning
March 2020 was likely one of the most challenging times for schools throughout British Columbia. Facing closures and a sudden shift to online learning, leadership teams, teachers, and students had to exercise adaptability and resilience in the new way forward. Then, September brought back-to-school with a whole new twist.
Now, three months into the school year, schools across the province are thriving, though not by accident. Hard work and commitment have been at the forefront of education delivery, and as British Columbia faces a second wave of COVID-19, independent schools are holding fast.
“There is a commitment from the World Health Organization that schools stay open,” says Mulgrave School’s Head of School John Wray. “Obviously when schools have cases, we must rely on the cohort model, but this is a strong effort to contain exposures, and I think it is working and has proved very effective.”
In June, Mulgrave’s eLearning experience was delivered in real time for grades five and up—students followed their schedules and joined the class using Google meetings. In the fall, most students returned to school, and the few who are required to stay home are fully supported with online teaching.
As a stand-alone school, West Vancouver’s Mulgrave was able to orchestrate the changes with agility and unencumbered by excessive bureaucracy. “We were able to rapidly consult with our teachers fast and directly,” Wray says. “In a situation like COVID-19, we have to move quickly and have flexibility.”
Liam Sullivan, deputy head - student life at Brentwood College School on Vancouver Island, says the school leadership knew right away they were not going to entertain ideas of taking their learning experience online this September.
“We made a decision that we are a face-to-face, in-person, on-campus schooling option,” Sullivan says. “All the discussion of how the mental stress affects children has affirmed to us that we needed to focus on this.”
The Ministry of Education’s plan did not specifically relate to a boarding school environment, so Brentwood partnered with Shawnigan Lake School to devise a strategy that specifically addresses what a campus environment can offer in response to infectious disease.
They consulted with Perry Kendall—provincial health officer until 2018 when Dr. Bonnie Henry took over—and leveraged his experience working through the H1N1 pandemic to develop a plan that applied to a campus model.
“We sent that plan to the Ministry of Education and had it accepted and published in the area of the Return to School Plan devoted to boarding schools,” Sullivan says.
The plan’s acceptance as best practice in BC was the affirmation the school needed that they would be able to handle the situation in the longer term. “We have the facilities, the health care team, and the structure in place to allow students to live their lives while maintaining more direction than the normal day student population would have where kids go home and schools have no control over how they interact with others," Sullivan says.
Today, the students are healthy and happy, and Brentwood always remains ready to nimbly switch between relatively free flow of students and shutting the gates if necessary.
“Our goal has always been that when we return to school, it would look and feel like Brentwood,” Sullivan says. “We are holding sports and arts, and when you walk around staff and students are wearing masks and social distancing, but it still feels like our school.”
When West Point Grey Academy learned in mid-March that schools would be entering stage 4 following spring break, the school’s leadership team planned and prepared for eLearning curriculum delivery and conducted teacher training and professional development.
“Like all schools, we were navigating the unknown, but the experience strengthened our ability to adapt, focus and be flexible,” says Megan MacMillan, communications director at WPGA. “It also heightened our commitment to our students’ and community’s wellbeing, including their mental and emotional health.”
Students returned this fall with the stage 2 cohort model, which includes comprehensive classroom and school routines, health and safety protocols, and facility modifications to help ensure the safe return of students and staff to campus.
“Confident, calm leadership, a collaborative approach and regular, transparent communication are incredibly valuable in uncertain times such as this,” MacMillan says. “Our teachers and staff have been outstanding and have embraced the challenges of adapting teaching, learning and school events to fit our new reality.”
The school sits on the beautiful Jericho Lands, the unceded traditional territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and sə̓ lílwətaʔɬ (Tsleil Waututh) Nations. The 18-acre campus lends itself to outdoor learning and play.
“We are hopeful that BC schools will not be required to return to prior stages, but if that were to happen, we are ready,” MacMillan says.
Similarly, Hugh Burke, headmaster at Meadowridge School in Maple Ridge, says its 10-acre outdoor learning space has always been a defining feature of the international baccalaureate’s campus offering, but during the past several months it has been invaluable. The site hosts a campsite and park, a network of trails, two greenhouses and possibly the most playground space of any school in the Lower Mainland.
“Most of our elementary and middle school classrooms have doors directly to outside covered areas,” Burke says. “That means the kids get a lot of outside time and love to learn out there.”
Meadowridge already had good digital communication set up with the students, which facilitated seamless collaboration, but they also modified the online delivery to accommodate for excessive screen time. The school also installed Merv 13 air filters and refreshed the air circulation system to improve fresh air exchange. “The students are happy to be back at school and love their classes and teachers,” Burke says. “The kids are great about following the regulations and the school is quite prepared for anything that might come next.”
The advantage for schools like Urban Academy in New Westminster is size—a smaller school is in the fortunate position to know the parent community well and work in lockstep with them when it comes to keeping families safe and healthy.
“We are able to listen and hear from them, and in return respond appropriately to address their concerns and meet their needs,” says Urban Academy’s Head of School, Mike Slinger. “Our staff has been very responsive and flexible in supporting student learning. We have a community supporting us, and in these challenging times, that is everything.”
Moving forward, continued success in schools will indeed be a concerted effort among committed teachers and staff in all districts.
“Across the province and in every school, teachers have been incredible during this period,” Wray says. “They have had to respond and be creative and work very hard to make this successful. We are very proud of every teacher in BC.” ■