As students and faculty across the province prepare to put another year behind them, they reflect on the unique challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Teachers, administrators – and, of course, the students – have had to grapple with Zoom calls, classroom outbreaks, and the sudden back and forth changes to their learning environments.
But for Elmira District Secondary School’s class of 2021 valedictorian Ben Fretz, the pandemic has brought out a silver lining.
“It’s been really interesting – unexpected. Throughout everything it’s been cool to see how people have reacted and changed during this time,” said Fretz. “It’s been difficult, but also has had its gifts. I think we’re all going to come out of [the pandemic] a lot more mature. Maybe we’ve matured faster than we would like to have throughout this and maybe faster than what’s healthy for some of us. But I think that we’re all going to come out stronger.”
This year marks the second class to have now graduated under the dark cloud of the pandemic, with schools now having a bit of experience with the situation.
“We’re going on two years of uniqueness now,” said EDSS principal Brad Marsh,. “A lot of change, of course, for students and staff, as we await the next stages from public health and from the ministry [of education].”
Marsh continued, “It was much easier, I believe, this year for staff because we had a little bit of a dry run last year when we went to the online environment. So I think that it was an easier move for [staff] to support students this year.”
But even with the experience of teaching in a remote environment, there is no substitute for the social interactions fostered by the in-person classroom. Fretz explained that one of the hardest challenges for him has been the lack of connection with others.
“We can always deal with Zoom meetings and more difficult school circumstances. But just missing out on seeing people, missing out on connection has been the most difficult thing for me,” said Fretz. “I think for the majority of us, it’s just been hard, hard to not see people that we care about and that we see on a regular basis.”
Students have had to adapt, not only in how they learn, but how they connect with one another. Faculty have noted the resilience of their students and their ability to rise to the challenges.
“Very resilient – that’s the great thing about teenagers, they definitely seem to be very flexible,” said Marsh. “As we go through this process, families and students have been very supportive of what we’ve done.”
It’s not just the high school students that have shouldered the brunt of the lockdown, as elementary schools have had to deal with the same closures and impacted learning environments. St. Boniface School principal Marylin Dawson has been thoroughly impressed by what she’s seen from staff and students.
“I know it’s been said a million times over, but this year is truly unlike any other we’ve experienced,” said Dawson. “Our students have really demonstrated some resilience and grit this year. The way that they were able to move seamlessly between remote and in person learning, still challenging themselves, still up for the adventure of learning has just been truly remarkable.
“I think we have the best staff in the whole board here. Not once did they flinch, they just moved into action, knowing that the success of our students is always our top priority. And everyone lent a hand to really make that happen.”
There have been many lessons learned by both staff and students over the course of the pandemic. As restrictions ease in the future, education providers foresee a different landscape, one that has been changed by the experience of going digital.
“We have definitely seen the extension and expansion of the virtual environment for students – and I think that that will continue,” said Marsh. “I think that we’ve seen an expansion of how we assess learning and I think that will continue when we come back into the building.
“I do believe that you will see students and staff continue to lean on the digital aspect, and that will become more of what the regular classroom looks like,” Marsh continued. “We want to be able to meet the needs of more of our students – opening up other doors is what we’re looking for.”