In March of 2020, Canadian education systems first began to close schools in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In that relatively short (yet seemingly long) timeframe, however, the internet has been abuzz with webinars, instructional videos, live learning experiences, and free resources for teachers, parents, and students. Educational thought-leaders from around the globe have weighed in with blogs and articles on a host of topics and educators themselves have taken to Twitter, Facebook, and other social media outlets to document their experiences and share their challenges and successes in moving their practices towards various remote delivery models.
As we begin to settle into remote learning from home, however, we must also begin to turn our attention to the inevitable task of planning for the future of schooling over the short and medium term. As school reopenings internationally are showing, this is not simply a return to schooling as normal. Moreover, since education in Canada is a provincial responsibility, responses to COVID-19 have been diverse1 and we would expect plans for the future to be appropriately varied. Fundamentally, what we will need to ask ourselves is: “What conditions need to be in place for students to learn and for teachers to teach, and how will leaders across the system adapt to support these conditions?” With that overarching question in mind, we draw upon provincial, pan-Canadian, and international work in the areas of government and whole system educational improvement, as well as teacher organizations and school leaders, in posing the following thoughts to stimulate conversation around how we will understand effective leadership across the education sector for the coming months and years.
THOUGHTS FOR GOVERNMENTS
At the height of the pandemic, over 90% – or approximately 1.6 billion – students were not in school2 due to 195 country-wide closures. These figures are already decreasing as some countries start the delicate process of reopening schools. While each jurisdiction will have distinctive needs, governments in Canada should look to and learn from international education systems that are ahead of us in the move towards creating new forms of schooling. Ensuring health, hygiene, safety, and protection must be the utmost priority. Physical distancing, hand washing, and other public health protocols are likely to continue as discussions of a second and third wave of COVID-19 persist. These conditions are extremely challenging in schools. An essential question is how, or if, students and staff can be kept two metres apart? Previous debates about class sizes have focused on educational and/or budgetary benefits, implications, and trade-offs. But how many students can be in a physically distanced school or classroom? Emerging international evidence includes phased re-openings, variations on rotating enrolments, and reduced class sizes. Assuming there are ways for students and staff to return to school buildings, the next key health consideration is that – while some people will have managed well and some may even have thrived during a period of staying at home – some students and staff will have experienced illness, grief, and trauma. As Doucet et al. (2020)3 paraphrase, “Maslow before Bloom” must be the fundamental guiding principle moving forward.
Policy decisions will also need to be made concerning equity. Emergency response approaches to teaching and schooling should not become the new status quo. Rather, in collaboration with the education profession and support staff, approaches to education during the COVID-19 era should be evaluated. Which approaches are worth continuing and developing and which are not? Technology, for instance, can be a useful tool and resource for teachers to use as part of their repertoire of strategies, but it is not a replacement for in-person classroom interactions over the longer term.4 If phased re-openings and/or rotating students’ physical attendance is used, what forms of distance learning, blended learning, and learning resource strategies for home and school will be required and with what additional resource investments? A second policy consideration
is that COVID has resulted in a pause on standardized testing in most education systems, prompting discussion on how authentic and appropriate feedback can be provided to students and their families, as well as to educators. These are important developments that should be further explored. What forms of assessment will be appropriate for the
2020-21 school year? How can rapid feedback continue to be provided in a scenario of physically distanced schooling, blended learning, and distance learning? The period of emergency response has been challenging for students, their families, and educators. It is a lost opportunity if this is not also harnessed to rethink the future of schooling in partnership with the education profession and support staff.
THOUGHTS FOR TEACHER ORGANIZATIONS
Canadian teacher organizations often work with, alongside, and through governments to develop innovative learning and leadership opportunities for their members,5 which often include a combination of teachers, school leaders, and other school staff. Recently, however, budget cuts to various areas of education have resulted in unrest in a number of jurisdictions and existing partnerships have been tested. Consequently, one of the priorities for teacher organizations will be ensuring access to the kinds of professional learning (PL) experiences that will be critical in supporting new forms of teaching, learning, and assessment of learning. What partnerships and relationships might need to be developed, renewed, or re-established? We are beginning to see evidence of renewed relations in Saskatchewan and Ontario, for instance, where new collective agreements have recently been reached after tense, long negotiations. A second consideration will be rethinking delivery models. Our previous research shows that the most effective teacher learning occurs in collaboration with other teachers.6 What adaptations will be needed to provide opportunities for teachers to continue to work together, and will organizational priorities and resources need to be shifted? While webinars and other forms of online learning are a solution in the short term, high-quality teacher learning should be varied in both form and function. Continued educator learning around trauma-informed teaching and ways of working will certainly be a priority, but what other innovations in content will the membership require and how will those needs be determined?
A second priority for teacher organizations will be continuing to ensure that safe working conditions and well-being are prioritized. While resolving outstanding bargaining issues will hopefully provide a stronger foundation for the continuation of professionally-led systems, a careful and measured approach will be necessary. In the context of the rapid growth of a range of providers of remote learning and technology solutions and the longer-term economic impacts of COVID-19, what new forms of advocacy work
and public outreach will be needed to ensure that public education continues to receive the investments that it needs? How will educators and support staff manage new job expectations and associated workload demands? What kinds of support mechanisms will be needed and how will organizations mobilize to meet those needs? Moreover, if educators are to have a strong voice in determining the future of schooling, active member engagement will be necessary. In a time when large-scale gatherings are prohibited, what adaptations might be necessary to strengthen organizational commitment? We are seeing a number of teacher organizations hosting webinars and providing online support to address current issues. This is certainly a step in the right direction but how else might teacher organizations connect with members to help answer all these questions?
If there was ever a time for teacher organizations to draw on the talents and strengths of their members while harnessing collective leadership capacity, it is now.
THOUGHTS FOR PRINCIPALS
With legal responsibilities for the health and safety of all students, principals – alongside educators and support staff7 – are very much the “other first responders” of this pandemic. Consequently, first and foremost, the responsibility of principals will be both the prevention and identification of outbreaks within their schools. There are a lot of logistical considerations: Will there be plexiglass for each desk? Will students wear masks? Will there be recess and how would it be supervised? How will applied courses take place? Will additional custodial staff be needed? What impact will prevention strategies have on school budgeting? Will there be new communication strategies with public health regarding student infections? What new procedures will have to be carried out as breakouts and clusters pop up? Physical health and safety are not the only well-being issue that principals will have to be mindful of as they will also need to consider the psychological impact of the pandemic.8 In an ideal world, we assume students are physically isolating in a safe environment. Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world and, only a few months into the pandemic, members of the public and policy-makers are being warned to “remain vigilant about the potential for abuse towards women and children.”9 What kinds of new community-school partnerships will be needed to support the emotional health and well-being of students and staff? How will principals support teachers in developing and implementing trauma-informed practices and policies? What supports will principals need themselves to manage their own health and how will those supports be provided? These are all important and significant issues that need to be explored.
Collectively, we will also need to reconsider how we understand effective leadership in the coming months and years. As instructional leaders, principals are responsible for supporting and ensuring that effective pedagogical practices and successful student learning happen. Now that schools are physically closed, and learning has been moved to virtual engagement, principals have turned their attention towards supporting online learning and leading schools virtually, coupled with exponential growth in their use of information communication technology and social media. Online teaching and learning, however, is not the same as teaching face-to-face10 as it is not merely about taking a face-to-face program and delivering via a web-based conference platform. Considerations include hardware and software issues, but also the skills required to navigate software and new knowledge on how to interact on such platforms. These issues are not exclusive to students, but impact teachers and school principals as well. Looking forward towards longer term implications, in a recent survey of American school principals, 82% of respondents indicated that they were not sure how their school district planned to scale up education technology to deliver curriculum and instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic.11 A key question becomes: what new forms of instructional leadership are required to promote a culture of learning in digital or blended learning spaces? A related concern is how principals will ensure equitable learning opportunities for all students. As we noted earlier, international return to school plans have been staggered and continue to include elements of at-home learning. As we move forward, issues including internet access, access to learning devices, and instructional capacity for online learning will need to be continuously re-evaluated. Working in collaboration with school districts, teachers, parents, and students to identify and navigate these inequities is and will continue to be a significant facet of effective principal leadership during the pandemic.
This pandemic has given us a lot of food for thought. On the one hand, the creativity and commitment of educators to providing meaningful and creative learning opportunities has been inspiring and lends hope to many possible futures. On the other hand, systemic gaps around equity in education (and all facets of society) have become all the more visible. While access to the internet and electronic devices has been heavily covered in the news media, there are families without access to clean water and others who struggle to provide basic supplies, healthy lunches, or a safe learning environment. Teachers, principals, and other school staff are also grappling with the rapid pace of change and its impact on their daily work lives.12
As Education International’s (2020) Guiding Principles on the COVID-19 Pandemic points out, given the extensive trauma (both professional and personal) that has resulted, future plans should be mindful of not only the physical safety factors related to containing outbreaks, but also the emotional well-being of both educators and students. Perhaps more so now than any other time, all decisions related to the future of schooling need to place protection, care, and compassion for students and educational staff at the centre. This will require us to collectively rethink the value and purpose of schooling as we shift gears away from the immediate responses that have dominated our conversations thus far, and instead move towards reimagining many of the fundamental aspects of schooling from the physical and public health components through to leadership, teaching, learning, equity, well-being, and a host of other components. This will be no easy feat and will not be fully realized for some time. As has become Canada’s slogan throughout this crisis, however, we are indeed stronger together. Most certainly, this must be the mantra of the education system moving forward.
1People for Education. (2020). Tracking Canada’s education systems’ response to COVID-19. Accessible from https://peopleforeducation.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/PFE_covid-tracker-table-Apr30-2020.pdf
2UNESCO (2020a). COVID-19 Impact on Education. Accessible from https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse
3Doucet, A., Netolicky, D., Timmers, K. & Tuscano, F.J. (2020). Thinking about Pedagogy in an Unfolding Pandemic: Independent Report on Approaches to Distance Learning During COVID 19 School Closures. Accessible from https://issuu.com/educationinternational/docs/2020_research_covid-19_eng
4Higgins, S., Xiao, Z., & Katsipataki, M. (2012). The Impact of Digital Technology on Learning: A Summary for the Education Endowment Foundation. Durham University and the Education Endowment Foundation.
5Osmond-Johnson, P., Campbell, C., Faubert, B. (2018). Supporting professional learning: The work of Canadian teacher organizations. Professional Development in Education. DOI: 10.1080/19415257.2018.1486877.
6Campbell, C., Osmond-Johnson, P., Faubert, B., Zeichner, K., & Hobbs-Johnson, A. (2016). The state of educator’s professional learning in Canada: Executive summary. Oxford, OH: Learning Forward. Accessible from https://learningforward.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/state-of-educators-professional-learning-in-canada-executive-summary.pdf
7Ontario Principals’ Council, (January 2020). The other first responders: Crisis support for principals and vice-principals dealing with traumatic events. The Register. 22(2).
8Zhou,X., Snoswell, C., Harding, l., Bambling, M., Edirippulige, S., Bai, Z. & smith, A. (April, 2020). The role of telehealth in reducing mental health burden from COVID-19. Telemedicine and e-Health, 26(4).
9Woods, M. (2020, March 21). Concerns about child abuse during COVID-19 isolation. CTV News Ottawa. Accessible from https://ottawa.ctvnews.ca/concerns-about-child-abuse-during-covid-19-isolation-1.4863060
10Ben Jaafar, S. (2020). Emergency response to this pandemic is not the future of online education. Accessible from https://www.bettshow.com/bett-articles/emergency-response-to-this-pandemic-is-not-the-future-of-online-education
11National Association of Elementary school principals (NAESP) & AASA (School Superintendents Association) 2020).
12UNESCO. (2020b). Teacher task force calls to support 63 million teachers touched by the COVID-19 crisis. Accessible from https://en.unesco.org/news/teacher-task-force-calls-support-63-million-teachers-touched-covid-19-crisis
Photos: Adobe Stock