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June 26, 2020

A marathon not a sprint

by Chris N. Roehrig, Director of Education, Huron-Perth Catholic District School Board, Ontario

You’ve described Huron-Perth’s approach to the COVID-19 school closures as unique. How so?

We took a calculated, culture-sensitive approach to the shift to distance learning and recognized early on that it was going to be a marathon not a sprint. It was obvious to us from the start that we had to pace ourselves. Before we ran out the door with something, we decided to be thoughtful about it and be concerned for each other rather than being concerned about exactly what the product might look like.
The language we used was “low-and-slow” which speaks to the culture in rural Ontario. The themes of culture and community were important. We put community first and it became the lens we used as we began to roll plans out.
We're actually feeling a bit buoyant going into the summertime. We’re set up well for the future and for reopening. Folks feel like they're being cared for and brought along in a way that preserves their trust in each other and in the organization.

What was Huron-Perth CDSB’s prior experience with distance learning?

We were fortunate in that Huron-Perth is among the provincial leaders in distance learning. Prior to this initiative our district had been featured as an exemplar of blended learning work. I think that our website portal is among the best around. It's neat, clean, easy to navigate and the resources are well-curated. So we were in good shape. We had to do some training but we weren’t training from the floor up.

Tell us about the logistics of your ‘community-first, low-and-slow’ approach.

Let’s take the example of synchronous learning, which has become a hot-button topic. The downside of getting out quickly on synchronous learning is that it's not equitable. So while it can be responsive to certain needs of some parts of the community, it can erode a sense of community, it can fragment it and be divisive.
We elected to take our time, maybe more time than other boards took. We wanted to make sure that, especially in areas of rural Ontario where connectivity is a huge issue, families felt that they weren’t being left behind. We wanted our teachers to feel safe and we wanted to provide an equitable response to the whole community.

You spoke about the cultural, values-based aspect of your approach. Can you say more about that?

We emphasized the importance of lifting each other up. I think we have a strong culture of collaboration, respect and care and that's been useful as we encounter not just the big challenges but the smaller ones. One of the things this new environment has taught us is that anything that looks simple can actually be incredibly complicated. Even just picking up belongings from school requires a tremendous amount of planning. All the hygiene and pick-up protocols have to be approved by public health, by the Ministry of Labour, and by Joint Health & Safety, all while managing the excitement and anxiety about not being able to be in school.
Supporting people to be resilient and have high degrees of trust helps make the simple things – which are now complex – doable. And this bodes well for the longer term, four or six to 18 months down the road.

In seeking to provide a unifying, community-sensitive approach, how did you gauge the community’s needs and desires?

One of the innovative things we did was our community consultations. We had over a thousand participants for a school district with 5,000 students, which is a very impressive uptake. We were seeking candour and that's not always easy.
We found a bit of a gulf within the parent community. On the one hand we had well-resourced, well-connected parents who were interested in moving faster, getting more materials, getting more student contact. Then we had a set of parents saying, “hold on a minute, I'm an essential worker" or "I just lost my job or I don’t have technology or my kids are sharing a device and I'm working from home all day …”. We had to find a way to build a response to both of those sides.
And then there was the staff side. Our staff was overwhelmingly concerned for the families that they were serving. They looked at the environment that they were going to teach in and asked, “if we’re inserting ourselves into the lives of families, how do we keep them safe and support them? What’s the right balance to strike?”
We used the data from the community consultations to drive our plans and our improvement efforts. We’ve just now followed up with a survey and we’re hearing from staff that their main focus is safety upon returning to school. Parents are wondering about how we can improve the interpersonal contacts between teachers and students in the online environment. We’ll tackle both issues over the summer. 

Do you think that some of your ability to remain buoyant and resilient was because you were starting from a solid foundation for distance learning?

That's half of it but the other half was a result of deliberate decision-making at the central office to guard the organization. Everyone was going through a period of great uncertainty. Each of us, even those privileged to have work, has our own family story and our own issues.
The senior team and central office staff were doing a lot of the work to start but we didn't pass that work into the field until we were ready. We wanted to minimize the number of people scrambling to figure things out as a way to guard against burn-out. We knew that we were going to need people engaged and energized not just for the first month but for the long term.
As it turned out, we were able to accelerate the product and get it out to families in a way that didn’t cause people to feel fatigued, beaten down or overwhelmed. We hear regularly from our people that they’ve felt supported and lifted the whole time.

How did you lead your team through this process, going against what must have been immense pressure on you to get it done fast?

It was very counterintuitive for me! Slowing down is not in my wheelhouse; I was actually saying, “let's go, let’s get it done!”
It was my team that convinced me to take a different path. The superintendents had a good sense of what was going on in the field and they kept saying, “slow down, think about the families.”
I trust my team. If they come in with a contrarian view, I listen to it.
We talked at length. It was a regular, ongoing conversation about what steps to take and how quickly to take them. I've been an executive in the school board for 12 years and I don't recall a topic that people felt as strongly about and that we talked about as often. Most things, even complicated stuff, we have enough experience and we have pathways for decision-making. But this was so different.
I think the one gift we have is that we’ve created a culture of great communication. We’re candid, we’re not afraid to challenge one another. And through it all, we made sure that people felt cared for, there was a culture of trust and a community of support. That’s what really won at the end of the day.

Photos: © Huron-Perth Catholic District School Board (pre-COVID-19).
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