As teachers, principals, and system leaders facing the reality of reopening schools amidst COVID-19, we entered the summer with trepidation; there would be no “holiday,” as travelling south of the Northwest Territories’ border and returning was discouraged. Instead, we frantically planned for both physical re-entry and remote learning to ensure equity and accessibility, while juggling to meet continually changing COVID-19 needs. August 2020 saw multiple email reminders about PPE, re-entry safety guidelines, and Chief Public Health Officer protocols. Staff familiarized themselves with safety plans, PPE wearing, and etiquette, and repeatedly reviewed new directives ranging from what to do if a child/staff member became sick to how to fulfil playground supervision, class bubbles, and how they functioned, one-way traffic, and laundering masks in cohort groupings. Then we looked at Essential Learning Outcomes, while preparing for in-class and remote teaching as needed.
The South Slave Divisional Education Council, situated on the south shores of Great Slave Lake in the N.W.T., serves a unique and diverse student population spanning both remote and regional communities, many with significant socio-economic challenges. It was in this challenging physical environment that we set about re-entry after months of school closures in the face of COVID-19.
August 27, 2020
PPE and provisions (in some cases washers and driers!) haven’t arrived! Logistics in the North can be tricky, so it’s understandable that staff are tense. Teachers, parents, and communities are all anxious as we recognize the serious potential consequences of having students return during a pandemic. Considering the bleak historical consequences of colonization, and the devastating effects of European diseases on the Indigenous peoples, the potential for further trauma in the North is huge. No one wants to get sick, or be branded Typhoid Mary in a small northern community.
By 8 p.m., the monumental efforts of all involved pay off as PPE, sanitizer, and handwashing stations are delivered and set up by staff, along with self-isolation rooms, to ensure readiness for opening day. The hand sanitizer dispensers challenge our collective problem-solving talents: the bag of sanitizer resists efforts to get it into the standing station. Brute force proves the answer; as one principal put it, “Take the cap off the bag and use a significant amount of force to shove the nozzle for dispensing the hand sanitizer in.” Next came figuring out how not to dispense too much liquid (another principal described it as “too squirty”).
We breathe a sigh of relief – we made it! Tomorrow, August 28, some schools will reopen, and those of us who get the weekend to further prepare secretly sigh in relief and watch to see how it goes. The new school routine begins: temperature check everyone (thank goodness for touchless thermometers), remind parents to keep sick students home, check for masks, keep a staff log, track symptom checker declarations, sanitize hands, and then do this all over again in the afternoon. All goes surprisingly well; the students are happy to be back; their crinkled eyes above masks tell us they are smiling! We may feel like medical personnel, and be quite nervous about that, but we are still teachers and love having our students back, knowing they are safe, seen, and we are learning together.
Our twice-daily routine becomes our mantra: wear masks, sign in, sign out, limit visitors to the school, no swapping of masks, don’t touch your face, sanitize hands, stay two metres apart, don’t mix your bubbles! Mantras are followed by disinfection – desks, doorknobs, high-touch surfaces. We teach, we clean, and now we have a second mantra: If it moves, TEACH it, if it doesn’t move, CLEAN it!
We hold our breath, follow the rules, and ruthlessly focus on Essential Learning Outcomes, prepared to pivot to emergency remote teaching at a moment’s notice. We prepare in-class, blended, and home learning packages for our immunocompromised, self-isolating students and those on rotational schedules due to physical distancing requirements, and try to use every minute of instruction efficiently.
We make it to Labour Day and relax just a smidge. No cases so far! Aside from wanting all staff to be well, the lack of substitute teachers in the North is a challenge, one which we greatly fear. A slight COVID spike has the potential to shut schools down due to lack of teachers and support staff.
We forge ahead, focused on excellent teaching and strong assessment practices to ascertain gaps in learning over the months of remote instruction in spring 2020. We actively plan remediation and work on deep transfer learning. Our high-school students meet counsellors, courses are planned, and they are excited to start semester one.
We’ve been back in the saddle almost four weeks. We’ve had our first virtual “meet the teacher” event for parents and are finding other ways to engage virtually. We remain committed and healthy. The habits of good hand hygiene and mask etiquette are ingrained now, and thankfully the Northwest Territories remains COVID-free. However, we see signs of exhaustion and stress (the workload of regular in-class delivery plus home/online packages, plus daily COVID routines is unrelenting). We are somewhat traumatized by the last five months, and our students, families, and communities feel the same way.
Mental well-being for staff and students appears to be deteriorating, social disconnection still exists, and relationships suffer. The unintended consequences of hypervigilance, mask wearing, physical distancing, mandatory self-isolation, and non-essential travel bans are surfacing. Is it the masks, the physical separation, or the five months of school closures that have eroded authentic connections? Is it everything at once?
Reinvigorating social emotional learning is necessary to build empathy, resilience, and healthy connections to support the learning community. We recognize that, even though exhausted, we must lean into our empathic skills and values of compassion, and learn to self-regulate before we can actively teach students to do the same in a time of significantly heightened stress. Being on the front lines, we need to be agile and responsive to emerging and changing social emotional needs, including our own. That all sounds great, but what can we do right now?
We must build teacher capacity through vibrant professional learning communities (PLC) and professional development focused on researched self-regulation and empathy-building practices. The need for empathy is so great that those who have it are now being dubbed as having the “empathy edge” (Ross, 2019) or seen as a “need to have” (Goleman, 2004). Jody Carrington (2019) states, “First, last and in all ways, it comes down to connection. To relationship…. It’s all about connection. Full stop.” Now is not the time to let empathy and social emotional education outcomes fall by the wayside.
In the North, we fundamentally include our communities. The focus is on the connection we share to ourselves, each other, and the land. Research from the Ashoka Empathy Initiative, highlighted in the Making Caring Common project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education (Jones et al., 2018), reveals five powerful reminders for intentional empathy teaching and best practices that in turn can support both teacher and student mental health:
1. Model empathy. Everyday moments matter! As students enter the one-way systems in schools for daily checks, we look them in the eye and greet them by name. This says, “I see you and you matter!”
2. Actively teach what empathy is and why it matters – across all learning areas, at every grade seamlessly to promote a safe and caring school culture.
3. Practice. Use every opportunity to be empathic: in class, on the playground, in staff rooms, out in the community, everywhere. Students are always watching!
4. Set clear ethical expectations. Lean into personal values, show up each day with intention and authenticity, and self-regulate yourself, always modelling for students.
5. Make school culture and climate a priority. Use professional development time and PLCs to collaborate and generate ideas for intentional, authentic empathy education. Professional development, case studies, and dialogue can all be leveraged to collaboratively build trust and establish a community of practice focused on empathy, relationship, and positive connections.
The work of many researchers, notably Goleman (2006, 2004), underpin the research-based programs we actively use (e.g. 4th R, Zones of Regulation, Leader in Me). These reminders are not just for school leaders; all staff are interconnected across our common fears or joys, and we deserve to be treated with empathy and dignity. In a socially and physically distant world, we need to expect more relationally from each other, hold each other accountable to the connections we have made or need to make, and actively cultivate compassionate empathy, whether in class or via video-conferencing, to support resiliency. So, in returning to schools, we think outside the box for ways to connect with students, parents, and communities, ensuring we are all seen and heard.
We watch previously postponed 2019–20 school awards ceremonies streaming live on Facebook! We share in the joy of what our students and staff have achieved in the middle of the COVID storm. We now have a “Conferencing on Demand” initiative (a designated day and time each week for parent calls to teachers), we live stream our opening Feeding the Fire ceremonies and promote cultural connections. We honour the lessons learned in the previous five months, to ensure we grow through this crisis. Live streaming is one of those lessons: post-COVID, we will continue to use this means to include and promote more parent engagement opportunities.
It’s Orange Shirt Day, and we remember the legacies of the residential school system and honour our commitments to truth and reconciliation. This resonates with our commitment to reinvigorate and consistently build empathy and positive restorative relationships. We commit to intentionally using our professional learning time to continue applying a structured approach to enhance social emotional learning. We commit as leaders to model what we want to see in our schools, from both staff and students, and to share with each other what works and what doesn’t so we can grow as a professional learning community and be of service to our staffs.
So far, so good! Thanksgiving is on us, and we wait to see what the next 30 to 60 days bring. We know teachers and communities are concerned about whether or not there will be Christmas and spring breaks, but we also know that by practising empathy and connection, we will not just survive but thrive.
Photo: Adobe Stock
Carrington, J. (2019). Kids these days: A game plan for (re)connecting with those we teach, lead, & love. Friesen Press.
Goleman, D. (2004). What makes a leader? Harvard Business Review, January, 24–33.
Goleman, D. (2006). Social intelligence: The new science of human relationships. Bantam.
Jones, S., Weissbourd, R., Bouffard, S., Kahn, J., & Anderson, T. R. (2018). For educators: How to build empathy and strengthen your school community. Making Caring Common Project, Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Ross, M. (2019). The empathy edge: Harnessing the value of compassion as an energizer for success. Page Two, Inc.