Last week, I had the privilege of sitting down with principals, school staff and parents to have conversations as part of the division’s results review process. This process allows Trustees a glimpse into how board priorities are functioning at the school level and serves as an accountability mechanism for the board. In a normal year, I find these conversations valuable to help hear from school leaders and parents about the important work happening in schools and some of the challenges that are faced in this work.
This year, the conversations were different. I left these conversations feeling hope, concern, and most of all, admiration for the staff and communities supporting Edmonton Public Schools. And I wanted to take some time to share some of this with you because it’s not something I always have a chance to share in detail at our board meetings or school council meetings.
In these meetings, I heard about the principals and teachers coming in over the summer to get their schools and classrooms ready to welcome students back to school. Principals talked about their worry for students when classes were closed in March, about the efforts to partner with organizations and school councils to make sure that families who relied on breakfast or lunch programs could be connected with groceries and hampers. They talked about their worry for the students and families who they could not connect with.
I heard about what it has been like to not have any cases of covid in a school, but that feeling of looking over your shoulder and waiting for the first case to appear, and I heard about what it has felt like to have an outbreak identified in your school. A vice principal described having to isolate for 14 days, only to arrive at school for her first day back and be notified that she had to isolate for another 14 days due to another case coming into the school. I heard about custodians who have been the mainstay of school safety, disinfecting classrooms at a moment’s notice. Principals discussed their efforts to reassure staff who are worried about rises cases and the possibility of getting sick or having their own children get sick and what this would mean for their students. They discussed plans for leadership when principals and vice-principals are both sent home. I learned that some teachers were preparing “go-bags” to take back and forth every night in case they learned in the evening that they have to self-isolate and can’t return to the classroom – so they can be ready to teach students from home.
I learned about the impact of the budget on supports for students. I heard about the mental health impacts of the pandemic on families and staff. A principal described reaching out to offer emotional support to parents in distress, who didn’t know if they would lose their job because they had no childcare and their child needed to self-isolate. I heard about the concern over missed instruction last year – the impact on literacy, regulation, and social support and the work to try to support all students where they are at when they walk through the doors to the school. School council chairs described the feeling of being supported by their school, but also described the loss of being able to enter the building and help out like they usually do. I heard about the challenge of supporting families online and helping new teachers navigate this landscape for the first time. I heard about so much more, the work, the worry, the support, the hope, the plans. I’m humbled to witness it.
There have been so many losses this year. And so much change. What I know for sure is that every person I talked to last week in results reviews is working harder than they’ve ever worked before. They’re worried about the families they support. They’re worried about covid, and the impact on their own families, and even though they didn’t say this, I worry that they are getting a little bit tired. I worry about how sustainable this, and the fatigue that I know must set in sometimes – I certainly feel it as a parent.
But one thing stood out to me above everything else. What struck me the most in all of these conversations, was the faces of teachers and principals when they talked about seeing the students again in September. They smiled wide every time about how good it was to be back with their students, even if it meant protocols and masks and distancing and cohorts. Their faces lit up when they talked about their students. It’s clear to me that the work that is happening in our schools is work of the heart.
When I think about this work, and the creative ways our schools and our communities have found to support each other, I can feel the many hearts beating for the students in our schools. All I can do is say thank you again and again for those who have been working so hard and have been given the largest task in education during our lifetime. Thank you for your work and thank you for your heart.