Learning more than ABCs under pandemic

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Jack Lilja, Palliser Regional Schools’ Co-ordinator of Counselling, meets with some of his FSLC team.  

If delivering the nuts and bolts of education isn’t a big enough challenge, staff across Palliser Regional Schools are also ensuring the social and emotional learning needs of students are being met under the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Shane Cranston, Palliser’s Director of Inclusive Learning, says students were already being taught about responsible decision making, empathy, managing their emotions and understanding different perspectives before in-class instruction was replaced with remote learning.

“Every family is dealing with these changing times differently and some have more tools than others,” he says. “But certainly the anxiety and stress cab be heightened in the homes of our students with the uncertainties.”

It’s a challenge for students to concentrate on learning if they’re anxious about the new modes of delivering education, or a variety of other potential changes they and their families may be facing. Cranston says changes to the structure of daily routines can be unsettling in itself, especially when students didn’t have the opportunity to ease into them.

Not only are many students and their families under greater stress these days, he notes school staff have a tougher job of identifying those who might need support given the lack of face-to-face interactions possible.

Teachers made contact with every family once in-class instruction was cancelled by the province to see how they were doing and what their needs were. Palliser’s team of Family and School Liaison Counsellors (FSLC) also followed up with those on their caseload.

Depending on the context of each school community, much of that contact is being made virtually, through online options like Google Meet, other social platforms like WhatsApp? and phone calls.

Counsellors know in-person contact is irreplaceable and there was some apprehension at first. Since then, however, Cranston says they’ve “found their groove” and made the best of what’s available.

“Reports from all of our counsellors are that they are finding success in every one of our communities,” he says.

Surveys have also been sent out to many students to see how they’re handling their school workload, the stress and anxiety that may come with that, and any other issues they might be experiencing.

Responses have varied, Cranston says, depending on the family dynamics and the economic realities they’re facing as a result of the pandemic.

“There are a variety of pressures out there that children and families are facing, so we have to approach each of them a little differently,” he adds.

Other support staff in Palliser are also working a full schedule as they try to keep up with the demand and unique needs of a new reality.

The Family Connections workers are helping families navigate through the various government supports available, and in some cases, supporting families to access respite for parents of children with special challenges.

Speech Language Pathologists have been able to continue with therapy and strategies online, although assessments will have to come later when face-to-face sessions can be arranged with their clients.

Cranston points out that continued contact with teachers and other support staff is important to help restore a sense of normalcy within students.

Deliveries of food hampers to families in need – made possible through nutrition program funding to schools – can also alleviate stress.

“It certainly does apply to the social, emotional welfare of the kids if there is less anxiety around nutrition,” he says.

School staff always have the best interests of students in mind and have been willing to go the extra mile to achieve that. The particular circumstances they find themselves in at this time, however, are foreign to most.

As a result, Palliser Regional Schools has been making online professional development opportunities available on a regular basis.

A session was recently offered to share strategies for identifying stress within students, age-specific strategies for opening up conversations about the same, and follow-up questions. It also included means to identify when urgent support is required, and when it goes beyond the school level.

“You can ask children how they are doing and they might just say ‘fine.’ In person, you could tell through their mannerisms and their facial expressions if that’s true,” says Cranston, adding it’s a little trickier when that contact is made online. “How can we ensure they are actually fine, and make sure we get a deeper response than just ‘fine?’ ”

Everyone is learning how to adapt during these unusual times and it’s hoped these experiences can pay dividends in the future. While face-to-face contact is always preferable, he says the online connections made between counsellors and students could help overcome some of the challenges a rural setting provides.

Professional development could also look different in the future, says Cranston, as the school division had never considered connecting hundreds of support staff online previously.

It’s also hoped the current situation has created a heightened awareness about the importance of social, emotional learning, especially when everyone is back to school.

“We are still going to see that stress and anxiety linger for a while, so we really have to work as a team to ensure that continues to be a focus,” he said.