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Re-opening schools in British Columbia: A tale in three acts (so far!)
By Dr. Kevin Godden, Superintendent of Schools/CEO, Abbotsford School District
 

British Columbia was among the first provinces in Canada to be affected by the coronavirus pandemic, reporting its first COVID-19 case on March 5, 2020. On March 17, while students were on March break, the province announced that schools would be closed indefinitely. Leading the way at the other end of the COVID-19 response, B.C. was also among the first to return to in-class learning with schools re-opening as of June 1, 2020.
 
Dr. Kevin Godden is Superintendent of Schools/CEO of Abbotsford School District. Located in the heart of the Fraser Valley, Abby Schools, as the district is fondly known, serves more than 19,000 students in 46 elementary, middle and secondary schools.
 
We spoke with Dr. Godden to learn how Abby Schools handled what is – so far – a three-part process, shutting down in March, opening up for vulnerable students and the children of essential workers in April and May, and returning to a blended model for all students for the last month of the school year in June.
 
Let’s start this story at the end (sort of!): You returned to in-person classes on June 1. What was the return like? How are the students, principals, staff and families doing?
There were a lot of smiles on faces! Kids and teachers were just taking delight in being back together. Despite the trepidation, this is what we do, right? This is our thing and we know that we’ve got this.

In terms of the numbers who have returned, it was about what we expected. We anticipated that just under half wouldn’t come back in person, about one-third would and the rest were undecided. I suspect after the week we’ve had, more will be here next week.
 
One of the things that I think all the jurisdictions are going to have to plan for are the accommodation issues. For staff who are immunocompromised or those with parents or dependents who are immunocompromised or elderly, we’ve gone through a pretty thoughtful, compassionate process around accommodation review.
 
We’ve asked everyone throughout the district to take a similar approach. For example, if you have a colleague who has to stay home then perhaps you can take their in-person teaching hours and they can take your distance learning hours.
 
We can figure out how to make that kind of thing work by leaning in to compassion, creativity, flexibility and collaboration.


Act 1, school closures are announced. What were your immediate concerns and how did you approach the shut-down?

We had a meeting just before spring break with our principals, vice-principals and managers as we saw the situation emerging. We had been grappling with decisions about kids who were going overseas on spring break. We looked at the odds that it was going to get better and played out the worst-case scenario of them being unable get back home. We made a tough decision to cancel all those trips.
 
In the middle of spring break we found out that schools were not going to be re-opened and that was a blessing in disguise because it gave us time, with kids out of school, to pivot.
 
One of the number one things that we had to deal with was the equity question. We have a pretty robust tech strategy but it's unevenly implemented. We knew we had some kids without access and some teachers not particularly strong at using technology so we had to ramp that up very quickly.
 
About the equity issues, how did you address that to make sure there was a level playing field for those with less access to technology or connectivity?
It was a big deal. We loaned out more than a thousand devices, Chromebooks and iPads. First, we surveyed our parents to find out about their connectivity, whether they had devices and then we just tried to get as many of them out the door as we could. That was quite successful given how quickly we had to do that, but then of course we had to back-end that with training.
 
It’s one thing to have the device and it’s another thing to know how to effectively use it on the platforms that we’re working on.
 
Then we also had to offer our teachers support with distance learning. There were already some mechanisms in place, but it's one of those things where the people who are really keen and thirsty for it and have ready access to it, they did not bat an eye in moving into that space, whereas others needed more support.
 
We already have a number of BYOD (bring your own device) schools and they just kept rolling. For the ones where that wasn't the case, certainly for elementary schools, we needed to provide lots of support both to the teachers as well as to the students and families.
 
We have a dedicated digital learning team in our Curriculum Department and so they really took on the bulk of educating our students and staff; then our IT Department focused on getting the devices into our students’ hands. It was really a collaborative effort between the two of them.
 
We had two weeks during spring break where we found out that we were shut down indefinitely and then we also had a buffer week after that where teachers were back but kids weren't expected to start classes yet. In that week we were really able to focus on our training. Our digital learning teams had meetings where we learned how to use Google Meet or Seesaw or anything students might be using and those meetings had hundreds of people attending each time. 


Act 2: BC schools actually engaged in an interim “back-to-school” process – tell us about that.

It was during the three-week break that the B.C. Ministry of Education released their guiding principles and one of the key priorities was continuity of learning for the children of essential service workers. We had been focused on getting everyone set up for distance learning, then we had to pivot back again – talk about flexibility! – to creating what we affectionately called “day camp” for the children of essential workers, those in healthcare, first responders and so on. They needed to be free to do their very important jobs which meant that their kids needed care: in some cases, before-school care, day camp school during the day, and then after-school care.
 
We set up five day camp sites located throughout the district. That meant that, now, some of us were dealing with kids on a face-to-face basis while we still had to ramp up and deliver online learning for those staying home.
 
We had lots of staff put their hands up and volunteer to do this. We wanted to take a maximally compassionate approach so people who were available and were willing were the ones we called upon to do this work, and they did a fabulous job with it.

As we understand it, you had to ramp up a second wave of interim in-person classes all while you’re still delivering online distance learning.
Right, as we had the day camps running, Public Health said, “You know what, we're doing really well now. Let’s look at the most vulnerable kids, children with diverse abilities or special needs who are unable to participate in online learning in the same way that other kids would.” We started to bring those children back working face-to-face with them using the day camp model.
 
It’s almost like you were launched into blended learning in the middle of the shut-down.
Absolutely. We had no choice. We had to roll with it! And because the day camps were regional, it made it kind of tricky. The numbers weren't as high as we thought because I think many of the parents thought that they were going to have this service in their neighbourhood school. But because we had to regionalize it to cover the geographic area of the district some of them declined it as a result. While the numbers weren’t high, certainly it was an important service for a lot of students and a great learning experience for setting us up for success for the full re-opening this past week.
 
So these regional day camps were almost like a pilot test for a full return to school?
That’s exactly it. Coming back to this idea of collaboration and creativity, it was great to see many of our principals who, in anticipation of going back in June, visited a day camp to see how it was operating, how physical distancing was working, how the interactions with the kids were going, how to handle recess, and other pieces of the puzzle. And then they shared these ideas with each other which I think really helped prepare us for this first week back. We were in a good place in sharing some of the lessons that we have learned, some of them the hard way, in terms of what to do and what not to do in day camp.


So now, Act 3 is about to start: You’re running distance learning, you’ve got these day camps up and running for children of essential workers and vulnerable children, and now you hear you are going back full-time in June. What happened next to pull it all together?

In the early days, the superintendents across the province met with the Deputy Minister and the Minister of Education who gave us a five-phase model for how we shut down and how we would need to go back. They gave us the broad brushstrokes, a framework which is now the BC K-12 Restart Plan.
We were at stage 4 and they wanted us to go to stage 3 (stage 1 is normal back to school) which meant that Kindergarten to Grade 5 students needed to be in school half-time and Grades 6 to 12 at about 20 percent.
 
Our Pandemic Response team has been the quarterback of this whole process. We just basically put our heads together, looked at the Ministry framework and identified all the things that we needed to do. Then we turned it over to the principals to map out what was going to work, with elementary looking a little different than middle, and middle looking different than secondary.
 
Principals came back with plans consistent for each level, adapting to their unique schools and communities within the parameters set out by the Ministry, the biggest one having to do with safety, safe working and learning conditions, physical distancing and so on.
 
They had some flexibility when it came to the actual instructional design. That's where they put their minds to work and came up with a 2-1-2 model. Blended learning had to continue because we knew not all students would come back and they needed to continue with the same teacher. Then we had face-to-face requirements so, at the elementary level, we landed on the model of two days of face-to-face learning with half the class, one day for teachers to consolidate and support online learning, and then the final two days of the week are face-to-face with the second half of the class.
 
How have you handled the very real concerns and trepidation that teachers, parents and students were feeling about returning to school?
You know the biggest part of this for me was about how we are going to grow confidence in our work and in our institution. We've been promoting compassion, hope, joy and flexibility throughout the ‘shelter at home’ period. I really wanted to give teachers the space to not worry about teaching that favourite math lesson, or freaking out about whether the kids can do long division or what-have-you.
 
Instead, I want them to have some fun with their students, welcome them back with warmth and compassion, have them feel comfortable walking through the door of the school again.
 
That is the biggest win we can have. It's June and the biggest part of this return to school now is to lay a foundation for a brighter future and have kids feel comfortable in September. In order to for that to happen, they and their teachers needed to feel confident, comfortable, and have some joyful experiences in June. They need to end the year in a positive way.
 
It was just about getting people through the door and encouraging them to be in the moment and enjoy each other’s presence.
 
What wins the day today, and what we’ll think about 20 years from now when we look back on this event, is how people made you feel and the fun that you might have had with caring people around you during a really difficult time.
 
Tell me about some of what you’ve seen that has really brought that to life this week.
You know, I love primary teachers. They have a song for everything! I visited a number of schools this year and in one of them, I saw a group of kids lined up outside their teacher’s door, all standing on little heart-shaped dots on the floor walkway that had been created for them. Their teacher had taught them a song online and they were going to sing it together before they walked in through the door to their classroom.
 
They sang the song, which was all about physical distancing and taking care of each other. The teacher had made up the lyrics herself and taught it to them along with a bunch of hand movements of course!
 
The fact that she had taught them this song online the week before, and had them standing on little hearts outside the door, just told me that she got it. She completely understood that it’s about this experience of coming back together, and being with one another, caring for each other and having fun and creating that moment that will be something these kids – and the teachers and parents too – will remember when they think about this whole time.
 
Why do you think it’s so important to come back now, in June – even though there’s only one month or less of school?
Imagine being out of school in spring and never returning, never gracing the doors of the school until next September. Just imagine what that would be like for people, what it would do psychologically.
 
I suspect that B.C.’s attendance rate come September will be higher because of this re-entry.
 
Kids have been in our schools, the teachers were organized, we've demonstrated that we can do this. It’s less about the academic goal than about the social emotional well-being of the kids and the staff. So that’s why we’ve reduced the number of academic learning targets and increased the social-emotional learning targets because that's what's needed – it sets the foundation for getting to the academics later. You can only learn when you feel safe and when you’re in a welcoming, nurturing environment. That’s the experience we intended to create … and that I think we did create.