Educators across rural Alberta are finding industrious ways to continue academic work, ease uncertainty, and let their students know they are not alone as they transition to online education during the coronavirus pandemic.
Alberta Education closed all schools throughout the province indefinitely on March 15 as recommended by health-care officials in an effort to reduce the spread of the virus and, ultimately, flatten the curve.
“As a school jurisdiction, we have been asked to think and act differently than we have ever done before,” said Bob Allen, superintendent of Buffalo Trail Public School Division, which stretches across East Central Alberta, and includes schools in centres such as Vermilion, Kitscoty, Marwayne, Wainwright, Provost, Chauvin and Innisfree.
“Re-imagining education with significant barriers requires us to be nimble. We need to be relentless in our commitment to put students at the centre of every educational decision we make.”
While online learning is an option for some families, school staff must bridge the gap for those without technological resources at home.
“We are all on a learning curve,” said Colleen Hoegl, a teacher from Marwayne, located 45 minutes northwest of Lloydminster.
“Many teachers have been putting in amazing hours as they self-teach the platforms they choose to use and make [their teaching] materials … compatible for use online.”
At the same time, Allen says educators need to conduct their work in a climate of safety that will protect those who are charged with the responsibility of continuing the education of rural students.
“While it is certainly easy to lament the onset of the coronavirus and how it has negatively impacted our lives, it is also important to recognize how we have stepped up to meet the challenges it presents,” he says.
Allen adds that students’ mental health and wellness is top of mind while families adjust to online learning.
“We are very fortunate to have worked in the area of mental wellness prior to this. We have a great team of dedicated mental health professionals…ready to support our students,” he says, noting the district has social emotional coaches, mental health professionals, and a child psychologist available.
“This team…immediately began to plan how their services could be offered remotely.
They have reached out to students who were under their care to make sure they are all right.
We have encouraged our schools to keep an eye out for those who might be struggling. We have communicated to parents to work through our school’s inclusive learning teachers to find additional supports if required.”
Hoegl agrees that supporting mental health is also something she is concerned about for kids.
“I have been touching base with students through Google applications for students to see everyone’s faces and have an opportunity to connect.
This will be a top priority for me in moving forward,” Hoegl continues.
Teacher Laura Sloan, who lives in Mallaig, located within the St. Paul Education Regional Division No. 1, adds a unique spin on spreading some happiness within her high school English courses.
“I have students doing an assignment called Corona Chronicles and one part of this is a daily Joy Journey,” Sloan explains.
“They take a picture or video and do a small write up about something that made them happy or something they’re grateful for.
“My hope is this can shift their mindset and help them focus on the good stuff. They take turns posting on our online classroom for their peers, too.”
While instruction may look completely different, educators say many lessons can be taught in new ways using technology to capitalize on the connection so many students are missing.
Kitscoty pre-kindergarten teacher, Elizabeth Stang, shared similar sentiments noting that social media platforms, YouTube, and video conferencing technology are all tools some families across the province are using to exchange face-to-face messages of caring, hope, and positivity.
“The [students’ parents] are an amazing support team as well, constantly updating me with pictures and videos of my students learning and responding [to] loving content that I’m creating for them,” she says.
“Knowing I can be a little light in this dark time really brightens up my day.”
Stang likes to incorporate fun while she draws up her lesson plans.
“I also create challenges for them, daily reading aloud or scavenger hunts and even just mentioning to go outside for 10 or 15 minutes to enjoy the sunshine.
“I want students to enjoy this time at home with their family while still keeping their minds sharp.
“It makes the mess of the world disappear for everyone a little through our check-ins, video exchanges, and connection back and forth.”
by Jessie Mann and Kristen Traverse (My Why Revolution) in association with Rural Health Professions Action Plan (RhPAP)