Well-being of children and opening schools

Yesterday afternoon, the Quebec government announced the reopening of schools during this current worldwide pandemic.

Last week, they suggested as much, citing herd immunity as a main reason. But over the weekend, perhaps in response to Dr. Theresa Tam’s statement about the practice, they changed their reason why. In fact, they replaced it with 5 reasons why and made sure to underline that herd immunity was no longer the driving force behind the reopening of schools.

Here are the 5 reasons why, as presented by Premier Legault (these are notes I took during the press conference on April 27. Here is Legault’s Facebook post, in French, that outlines the same points)

1 – Well-being of children. Especially for those with learning disabilities. (Asking teachers to pay special attention to children who are having difficulties).
2- The risk is limited for children. Children with health problems or who have parents with health problems, parents should keep them home.
3 – The situation is under control in hospitals so if children and teachers get sick we can treat them.
4 – We have the go ahead from public health (earlier I had read that M. Arruda, the director general of public health had wanted to wait another week but I can no longer find that reference)
5 – Life has to continue, children should see their friends and teachers again. I don’t see children staying at home until a vaccine is ready in 12 or 18 months

Calls herd immunity a secondary benefit.
We are reopening our schools for social reasons and because the situation is under control in hospitals. (Legault)

School is to be optional and teachers are expected to teach those who choose to be in school and follow up with those at home. (Roberge)

For the past 3 weeks of the 5 weeks we have been out of school, we have sent links to activities that could be completed at home at a family’s discretion. We will continue to do so until we return on the 19th (in Montréal, still considered the epicenter in Quebec as of last week, and if the situation in the hospitals does not change), all the while preparing our classrooms for face to face teaching in a pandemic. Some teachers have also connected with their students in other ways, through Google Classroom, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, or other platforms.

If schools do reopen on the 19th, we will still be asked to connect in those ways all the while caring for the children who come to school in very unusual circumstances – 2 metre distancing in classes, recess, etc… and with no protective gear provided or mandated for staff or children. Some students and teachers won’t be present because of age or underlying health issues. This is not a return to school as it was nor is it a return to school for everyone.

Premier Legault said that we are reopening our schools for social reasons and that the number one reason is for the well-being of children.

There are vast options for nurturing our students, for providing for their well-being, that lie between the sending home of un-monitored schoolwork and the opening up of classrooms. Online learning can be a safe, caring space if we plan for it.

We can work with small groups, in a stations approach. Colleagues can manage these small groups together, sharing the load and learning together. A group can work with the French teacher while the other works with the English teacher and then they switch. A resource teacher can also be at another group, to keep the groups as small as possible because we know that the smaller the group, the more opportunities each group member has to ask questions and express themselves. Resource or technology teachers and consultants can accompany teachers as we experiment with new solutions. As I wrote the other day, this is possible with tools that are made available to us by our government and our school boards.

Yesterday, our Education Minister, Jean-François Roberge, promised LTE equipped tablets for students and families in need for distance learning. This begins to address the issues of equity and accessibility that worry me and can help to make this kind of online work accessible to more learners.

I can already imagine all of the arguments against this kind of thing – in my previous career as a technology consultant for the Province, I heard them all! The reality is, if we put the arguments aside and try, we will find that it works.

I am not suggesting that this can replace the kind of learning environments we had in our classrooms before we shut down but we won’t be returning to those spaces if we return on the 19th anyways. It won’t be business as usual. It won’t be equitable with some students and teachers in the buildings, some at home. I am scared and worried. Others are scared and worried. How will our children react? My son wants to return to school so he can play with his friends … But he won’t be able to play with them unless they are 2 metres apart so he is scared and worried. We can create safe, nurturing, closer to equitable learning environments online if we all stay home, like our Federal (and Provincial!) government suggests.

(Of course, today Legault will be announcing the plan to reopen businesses… Was the well-being of children really the driving force?)

Learning (or should we call it connecting?) Online in Troubled Times

Yes. Especially at this tumultuous (yet, for some lucky people, incredibly boring) point in time, we need to be talking about connection when it comes to learning. (When I say connect, I mean primarily as in human connection but also as in infrastructure.)

Connecting Online in Troubled Times.

There have been a whole new slew of online meeting and learning memes since we have started to work and school from home. Most of them refer to either inappropriate dress (or lack thereof altogether…) in meetings or the extreme boredom, exhaustion, and frustration of them. I could include a ton of pictures of actual online meeting fails…but they involve real people and my friend Avi reminded me how sad it is for them to be reminded of their fails all the time, so here’s a joke video that pretty much sums them up.

But we have a desire to connect, a desire to connect to some kind of normalcy in these very un-normal times so we try to be productive online. Meetings, classes, more meetings, more classes. If we just continue as usual, but online, then we can quasi pretend that we aren’t going through traumatic life shifts. That not only “everything will be alright“, but it is alright.

I hear from some parents, “If only teachers would teach online, that will solve things for me and my children!” I hear from our Ministry of Education (though the last I heard from them was quite a while back…), education consultants, and PD presenters, “Here are lists (and lists and lists and lists) of things you can do to make learning happen. To solve things for those parents asking for solutions.” And so teachers forward these lists to parents weekly but they say, “No! We don’t want lists of things to do, we want…online teaching! We want you to do your jobs in our homes!”

It is all very exhausting and overwhelming. I started tuning the lists out a few weeks ago. At this point there are soooooo many lists that whenever I do need an idea I can just Google what I need and I’ll be ok. But as more of my own learning and connecting experiences are taking place online (and I used to do a lot of online learning and connecting in my former job!) the exhaustion is returning.

For the most part, these experiences are presenter focused. That is, a very traditional lecture-based presentation….despite the possibilities that online learning has for connection, collaboration, and interaction.

Last year, I experimented with working in stations during online PD sessions and I find myself reflecting on those experiences now.

The magic of online stations (which are very doable with breakout rooms in Zoom or Via ‘ateliers’ and even manageable with multiple Meet rooms) is the same as the magic of classroom stations work: the relationship and connection that is created when working with small groups of learners.

At this point in history, after months (in some cases) of being apart, connection needs to be the driving force of online learning – whether for professional development or for student development. We can’t just throw content at our students or participants. We need to design opportunities for them to connect with us, with each other, and with the material.

Some of our students have suffered great loss with sick and dying relatives. Some of our students are alone at home with parents who work at home, yet are in another room for much of the day. Some of our students can’t meet with us online because they don’t have the tech to do so. Or they can’t meet with us because their parents work in essential services and they are at emergency daycare services. All of our students are grieving the loss of their friends, their lives, their fun, their experiences during this forced time at home. Many of them are scared of this loss and of this virus (and so are we.) We can’t ignore these very real facts.

Consider this when arranging to meet with your students or teachers online. How are they connecting with you and with their peers? Are you muting them all because it is just too noisy (and taking away their means to connect and express)? Or are you planning for small group work that they will do in separate meeting rooms so that they can talk with each other and the presenters and not be overwhelmed by 20+ learners talking at the same time? Are you making sure that you have time to connect with each of the small groups so they can ask questions or say things that they may not be brave enough to utter in a large group?

This works. I know because I have lived it a variety of levels. And if you can do this with teaching partners, it works even better because each of the small online breakout rooms can have a teacher to guide the conversations and check in with students. And the bonus is that we teachers get to support and connect with each other as well as we, in turn, support our students and their families in these very troubled times.

We are not teaching. We are connecting.