July 9, 2020

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Opinion

Most unusual school year comes to an end

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>A Kelvin High School classroom, modified to accommodate eight as students returned in limited numbers on June 1. Teachers, students and families will welcome the end of this unusual school year.</p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

A Kelvin High School classroom, modified to accommodate eight as students returned in limited numbers on June 1. Teachers, students and families will welcome the end of this unusual school year.

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On June 5, Irina Ivanova donned cap and gown and, all smiles, strode across the stage in Morden Collegiate’s gymnasium to receive her high school diploma. Pomp and Circumstance played dramatically as her name was called. Family photos were taken and joyful tears were shed.

Sounds typical, but this convocation was anything but. Irina was the only grad in attendance, and her family, the only family there, stood dressed-up and beaming in an area reserved for them metres from the stage.

Over several days and from a respectful distance, Morden Collegiate principal Marianne Fenn and vice-principal Tania Sigurdson cheered on each and every one of the school’s 137 graduates in their own personal convocation timeslot. Each grad’s moment will appear in a video to be screened later this month at the community’s Stardust Drive-In theatre. The grads, their families, teachers and the community are elated. This moment, so significant in the lives of young people, has not been lost.

Scenarios such as this are playing out in many Manitoba schools this month. As they have done since classes were indefinitely suspended on March 23, teachers are going to extraordinary lengths under extraordinary circumstances to connect with and — in the case of the Class of 2020 — celebrate with their students.

Since that day, we’ve seen our public school teachers engage on a wide variety of platforms, using technology to see, hear and exchange information with students. And we’ve watched with awe as those with limited or non-existent access to the internet strove to provide whatever stability and continuity they could to children in their communities, many of whom depend on school for a sense of security and belonging.

The burden has been heavy — not only for teachers, but also for students, and for families trying to maintain learning at home, often for multiple children.

This month the province relaxed some restrictions and allowed limited access to schools for assessment and small-group work. There was relief in seeing students teachers had missed so much; there was also incredible stress in redesigning work that was only weeks ago overhauled for online and distance delivery.

Life after lockdown looks much different inside schools, and returning has added a layer of planning, anxiety and adjustment for all. The burden hasn’t eased. It has shifted.

Today, just as there were in March and April when we initially slid into the uncharted waters of at-home learning, there are many questions. They have morphed, from how best do we teach and support students remotely, to how best do we assess learning loss and address that gap for each child? And how do we prepare for a new school year, when so much is still unknown?

If there has been one clear positive in all of this upheaval, it is that our province’s education partners came together to talk. We found common ground and shared perspectives; more than once we disagreed, but all in the quest to fulfil our responsibility to students, teachers, school leaders and staff on the front lines co-ordinating the effort. They rely on us, now more than ever, for expertise and encouragement, courage and compassion.

As difficult and stressful as this spring has been, there have been moments of light, inspiration and joy, as well. We cannot lose sight of them. These moments build our collective resiliency and refine the focus on aspects of our lives, both personal and professional, that truly matter.

Our teachers are tired. Our students and families are tired. There is a real need to bring this most unusual academic year to a close, and catch to our collective breath. We must take time to refuel so that in the coming weeks, when the path becomes clear, we will all have the energy to respond.

And so we look to the summer, this year more than most, to provide restorative time so deeply needed by those who have shouldered the burdens of a spring like no other.

Back in Morden, Irina held up her hard-earned diploma for the cameras. She tossed her grad cap in the air, and an almost-empty gymnasium was filled with love and hope.

We have persevered, and we will rise above. The future, thankfully, has not been cancelled.

James Bedford is president of The Manitoba Teachers’ Society.

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