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June 15, 2020

THIS IS US: COVID-19 creates opportunities for ‘innovative inclusion’

by Luc Lerminiaux, Director of Education, Prairie Valley School Division, Saskatchewan
LucFor Prairie Valley School Division, teamwork has been transformative. We had no way of knowing how the guiding principle of “This is Us” – one of our three focus areas – would be the power behind our capacity to adapt to the realities of COVID-19.

In the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, Saskatchewan made the decision to close schools until the fall. Like other school divisions, Prairie Valley quickly launched optional supplemental learning to give families distance learning options until the end of the school year.
 
Scaling up distance learning involved a host of complexities including finding ways to level the playing field in terms of access to technology and training teachers to serve their students and communities in ways they never had before.
 
This was critical, and uniquely challenging, given our geography. Prairie Valley is a sprawling, rural school division of 39 schools in 32 communities spread across 27,000 square kilometres on Treaty 4 Territory. There are two Hutterite colony schools in the division and 15 nearby First Nations.
 
In many of Prairie Valley’s small rural schools, there were few online learning options available. Although we had taken some tentative steps to explore e-learning, there had been a general reticence to truly embrace it and an overall perception that nothing could replace face-to-face teacher interaction. COVID-19 really put those concerns under a microscope and forced us to examine them.
 

Starting from scratch

Our first issue was how to transition to distance learning recognizing that so many educators, students and families were almost completely new to it. Even if you find ways to provide supplemental learning activities to families, these still do not replicate the interaction, discussion and engagement typical of a face-to-face experience. Teaching is a very human endeavour, which quickly became evident.
 
I am so proud of our team, our IT and facilities staff for coming together, first to coordinate efforts to orient and equip teachers so that they could deliver online learning and second, to address the technology gaps that affected so many across our division and in particular those who were already vulnerable.
 

Getting technology to the people who need it most

We gathered together all the hardware we had – laptops, iPads and phones – which are in constant rotation as staff swap them out for newer models. The devices had to be disinfected, purged and then distributed so they got to the people who needed them most.
 
In all, we distributed more than 450 pieces of technology most which went to vulnerable communities including some of the 15 First Nations communities.
 
Once families received the devices, we then had to deal with connection issues – a matter not only of access but economics – and teach them how to use the various platforms. Many families simply didn’t have Internet connection and couldn’t afford data plans even if they did.
 
Our IT staff came up with another ingenious idea: we had a number of smartphones that we could enable as hotspots. We distributed over 50 phones to 50 families who could then access complimentary Internet – a small but significant way to create a more level playing field for all students regardless of their socio-economic status.
 
It was an absolute joy to know that these students would not be left out of the many ways our teachers were finding to connect with students, from discussions on Google Classroom to bedtime story reading videos on social media.
 

Unintended benefits: New opportunities for equity and inclusion

Acknowledging that nothing replaces face-to-face interaction, people have not just gained comfort with technology and online teaching but have found that it offers some real – and we think lasting – unintended benefits.
 
First, it turned out to be a true time-saver and again, our unique geography plays a role here. For example, principals (many of whom are teaching principals) spend many hours commuting to attend meetings. Once we started holding these meetings virtually, they eliminated what was many hours a week in drive time. We are now able to think differently about how to do some of the administrative tasks in a more time-effective (and that means cost-effective) manner.
 
The same innovative thinking is being applied to new ways of teaching. COVID-19 has really escalated the movement to blended learning. We are also seeing opportunities for a greater range of courses – especially electives in high school – which simply could not be made available in some of the more remote, rural schools through traditional in-class learning. We had accepted the status quo, that is, that smaller or more remote schools would simply not have access to the same range of learning opportunities as larger, more central ones.
 
Now, there are opportunities available even in smaller schools to offer a richer, more robust set of courses by embracing online learning. And we know we have built a foundation for success having grappled with the issues of technology and training. It’s really exciting!
 

Innovative inclusion: This is us!

Some of the most inspiring stories of teamwork, collaboration and community-building – true “This is Us” moments – are coming from groups who are most risk of further marginalization or exclusion, especially during a time of social and physical distancing.
 
For example, one Elder in Residence in Prairie Valley schools, Charles Wayne Kequahtooway, has been offering his teachings to Prairie Valley students of Zagime Anishinabek First Nation.
 
Prior to COVID-19, there was regular sharing of culture and connection, a lot of it experiential and in-person. Disrupted by the school closures, Elder Wayne created a video to demonstrate some of the Indigenous ways of knowing and land-based learning, maintaining that essential connection between the First Nation, its students and the broader school community.
 
Shannon McKinney, see right, a Grade 4 teacher at Fort Qu'Appelle Elementary School, developed an online mandala drawing and gratitude journalling lesson for her students.
 
Another example comes from a teacher in one of our elementary schools who had taken a class on expressive art therapy. Thanks to COVID-19 and a more expansive notion of what the curriculum can be, teachers are able to take a few risks. This teacher shared with her class how to create mandalas and gratitude journals, lessons that might otherwise be outside of the core curriculum but that speak to so many emotional, cognitive and behavioral skills.
 
Finally, it’s June and Pride month and I want to make a special point of highlighting another school demographic that really rose to the challenges posed by COVID-19: our LGBTQ2S student community, which has gone virtual and redoubled their efforts to promote acceptance, inclusion and safety for LGBTQ2S students. The work they have done to support one another and to advance the conversation about inclusivity and diversity throughout the school division was recently featured by CBC Saskatchewan.
 
Little did we know, at the beginning of the school year, how the theme of teamwork, collaboration and inclusion would take on a deeper importance and empower our ability to pull together in times when we had to stay apart. I’m so proud to say that “This is Us.”
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