Making connections key for Palliser teachers

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A Vulcan Prairieview Elementary School teacherproduces an instructional video to be shared with students at home.

You can add a fourth ‘R’ to the playbook as Palliser Regional Schools continues educating students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

‘Relationships’ – whether it’s forming new connections or bolstering existing ones – are a priority in the first few weeks after the province cancelled in-school education indefinitely. One of the first steps schools across the division took in this new journey of learning was to reach out to students and parents to find out how they were faring and what supports they might need.

“It’s more about connecting right now than the curriculum,” says Leanne Hellman, principal at County Central High School in Vulcan. “You have to relate, before you can educate.”

It’s important to share with students the new realities of learning are and how things will roll out, she adds, but also reassure them they won’t be left behind if they struggle at times.

Communicating with parents is also a must, says Greg Rollingson, principal at Noble Central School. Most schools are using a variety of online platforms to set up virtual classrooms, and bridge the distance between staff and students. Palliser has loaned Chromebooks to students in need, but not every parent is comfortable with a greater reliance on technology in the classroom. The realities of Internet service in rural Alberta doesn’t help.

“What I tell them is the staff at this school is amazing, and we are going to find a way for your kids to be successful, come coronavirus or high water,” says Rollingson.

Principal Fred Jack points out the online programming and supports being used by many schools creates additional barriers for the Low-German speaking Mennonite community Carmangay Outreach School serves. The classrooms they’re more accustomed to in their native Mexico would compare to what Alberta schools looked like a half-century ago, he adds.

“Now add this completely different landscape – at a distance, online and using different forms of communication – which is so out of their sense of norm and out of their comfort,” says Jack. “The way they have embraced and allowed us to engage their children has been exemplary and I am tremendously appreciative of that.”

While Chromebooks have been issued to Carmangay’s Grade 9-12 students, the school is also distributing printed materials for younger students. Staff communicates home through automated voice messaging and technology those parents are familiar with, including apps which use smartphone Internet connections.

Principal Jody Beagle says it’s natural for students and parents to have concerns, as this is new ground for everyone.

The use of technology in the classroom isn’t foreign to her staff at Champion School but some of the platforms being used, and the situations they’re being used in, definitely are. She knows there will be bumps along the way, but is confident moving forward after seeing her staff’s ability to think outside the box.

Not only may some parents be anxious about the possibility of their child falling behind in these uncertain times,  Beagle says some may have had misconceptions about their own role in classes held at home.

“I think some parents assumed they were going to be home schooling,” she says. “We’re just trying to calm them: ‘No you’re not. You will be supporting for sure, but we are still going to provide the education.’ ”

One of Jack’s immediate goals was to “promote, foster and support resiliency” in his students at Carmangay, something which can be difficult enough for adults who have much broader experiences to draw from. Supporting his students with a sense of normalcy is another goal, one Tracy Inaba and her staff at Vulcan Prairieview Elementary School have made a concerted effort to achieve.

“We’re just trying to find ways of making our ordinary, daily, weekly things possible,” she says, just before staff gathered in preparation of the school’s scheduled Spirit Day. The theme was ‘Colour Our World,’ with plenty of student photos submitted online in response to a group photo of staff dressed in the specified colours assigned to each class. “It’s about being creative and finding ways to make it as normal as possible.”

Hellman, like the others, knows how much work staff have put in so far. It’s not just a matter of taking earlier plans and then putting them online.

“We have to restructure, re-evaluate and make sure we are getting the essentials forward for the kids to be prepared for the future,” she says.

Rollingson has also stressed to staff at Noble Central School the need for patience.

“Everybody is going to be in a different spot and different level of comfortability. So we need to make sure while we really want to move forward with one thing, others might not be there yet, and we have to teach many different aspects other than curriculum right now,” he says.

Beagle agrees, especially when it comes to the introduction of new technology.

“Curricular content is secondary to just becoming comfortable with that, then still maintaining those relationships so they know we are here for them,” she says.

While out-of-school education has resumed in many Palliser schools, those on spring break will begin the same upon their return.