A Winnipeg school community is grieving their principal mere days after losing a much-loved teacher.
Principal Paulette Huggins spent part of December’s final week planning how best to support her staff at École J.B. Mitchell School following the death of Megan Wolff, a nursery and kindergarten educator.
"She was… the kind of person that would give you the shirt off her back," Nicole Kurtz, the vice-principal of École J.B. Mitchell, said of Huggins. "She’d be there no matter what time of day, or evening, or weekend."
Wolff died Christmas morning after testing positive for COVID-19, despite being triple vaccinated. Huggins did not have the virus when she died Dec. 29, and the two deaths are not connected, according to family.
The double tragedy has been "earth-shattering" for those connected to the elementary school, said Kurtz.
"The one thing that is really, really obvious right from the get-go when you enter that school is you see how strong and united of a group… that everybody is," Kurtz said.
If you visited École J.B. Mitchell at any time, Huggins was likely in the building, according to those close to her.
Maybe she was overseeing an after-hours "passion project" to beautify the place, like the two locker murals she commissioned. She might be in a meeting to better French immersion programming in Winnipeg School Division, the body she worked for since January of 2000.
Even at home, she might be reading an article about educational leadership or catching up on emails she’d put off to maximize in-person connection during the day.
"It was her life and passion," said Gary Huggins, Paulette’s husband for nearly 35 years. "She was always thinking about the kids and the community."
Teaching — and leading by example — seeped into her home life, he said.
"We’re grieving right now, and we’re growing as we’re grieving, because the question we ask ourselves every day is, ‘What would Mom have wanted?’" he said.
Huggins didn’t let others’ opinions sway her decisions, according to Linda Berry, who was vice-principal of École J.B. Mitchell for five years before Kurtz. Berry became best friends with Huggins — a perk Berry said she didn’t expect from the job.
Berry said she valued Huggins' confidence and called the principal’s delegation and empowerment skills a "superpower".
Huggins established a French immersion program in Victoria-Albert School, an inner-city Winnipeg institution. The province’s largest school division leaned on her for French immersion advice and advancement, according to Berry.
"What a loss to the Winnipeg School Division, and to the community," Berry said.
The division’s superintendent’s department released a letter dated Dec. 30 about Huggins’ passing.
"Paulette will be greatly missed by her colleagues throughout the school division and her École J. B. Mitchell School family," the letter reads.
Huggins' career — which began as a classroom teacher and advanced over decades to principal — helped spark her daughter Gabrielle’s passion. Gabrielle has won a provincial Excellence in Education award for teaching.
"I’m proud of the work (Huggins) did, I really am," Gabrielle said.
Despite being busy with work, Huggins made time to be a caring mother and "fantastic best friend," said Marissa Huggins, the youngest of her three children.
École J.B. Mitchell teachers are scheduled to return to school Jan. 6, four days earlier than students. There will be clinical supports and other resources on site, according to Kurtz.
"It’s so sad that we’re coming back, missing two special, special people," she said. "But, we’re still a united group and family, and we’re going to lean on each other and get through it."
Around 40 people work at École J.B. Mitchell, and there are just under 380 students.
Gabby is a big fan of people, writing and learning. She graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in the spring of 2020.