The Kids Are (Mostly) Well: Lessons Learned in Calgary Public Schools During the Pandemic

A little over a year ago, the lives of students across the province were thrown into chaos when kindergarten through 12th grade was canceled indefinitely due to the global pandemic. At the same time as many athletic and extracurricular activities were suspended, Calgary school departments began to consider online learning, and days of uncertainty ensued. Since then, a lot has changed for Calgary students, families, and educators when it comes to learning – whether online or in person. But through all of that, they largely figured it out and adjusted it. Maytee Negash, a 11th grade student of Father Lacombe, said she remembered feeling confused when classes were first canceled in March 2020. “It was very uncertain. At first it was like it might take two weeks and you’ll be back in the classroom,” she said. “Then it turned out, ‘I don’t think we’ll be going back until September,’ and even in summer it’s like, ‘Are we going to go back at all?” Maytee Negash, 11th grade student of Father Lacombe, says one lesson the pandemic taught her was not to take opportunities for granted. (Submitted by Maytee Negash) You went back. In the fall, both Calgary public school boards began offering in-person courses and an online option with the launch of the Calgary Board of Education and St. Isadore’s online learning hub of the Calgary Catholic School District. Given the popularity of St. Isadore, where 6,000 students are enrolled in grades 1 through 9 (an online option for students already existed), the CCSD announced in February that they will continue to offer online learning for the coming school years will. “Before the pandemic, almost everything was taught and learned face-to-face in a classroom. We know that is on one side of the pendulum,” said chief superintendent Bryan Szumlas. “On the other side of the pendulum is learning online, or using this technology, and I think we’re going to end up somewhere in the middle.” Tamara Rose’s daughter Scarlett, who is in second grade, was one of 21,000 students who originally chose the CBE’s HUB option. This has been a tremendous learning curve for the single mother. “I thought I was in control of being able to work and go to school and, you know, be a mother and do all those things at home too. But I can now say that things had to be,” she said said. “My work comes first, and then it’s very important to spend time with her as a child with a parent. And then we get what we can do with school.” Rose said the one-on-one interview between her and Scarlett had also produced many positive results. “We were able to solve a number of different problems Scarlett had through our GP. She was ultimately diagnosed with a learning disability,” she said. “I’m not exactly sure that would have happened if she had been in the classroom.” CBE Chief Superintendent Chris Usih. (CBC) The CBE said it understands the balancing act that parents, students and staff have undertaken over the past year. “There was no blueprint for teaching and learning during a pandemic,” said Chief Superintendent Christopher Usih. Since last March, there have been more than 40,000 cases in the CBE of students or teachers being isolated in school due to exposure to COVID-19. “This disruption of students being back online and in person continues to be an adjustment for our students and families,” he said. Usih said for him the big win from last year was how students, families and staff rose. “I really recommend the way we have come together as a community to keep supporting learning,” he said. “That is why today, in mid-March, we are still dealing with cases that are occurring in some of our schools – but the learning continues.” The pandemic also gave school authorities a unique opportunity to work with a University of Calgary researcher who studies student wellbeing during a pandemic by asking how students are feeling in four different time periods and the impact on social life who assessed educational experiences and mental health. Heading the study is Kelly Schwartz, Associate Professor and Psychologist at the U of C’s Werklund School of Education. “How do you feel about the COVID experience in terms of health, social distancing and quarantine and the like?” The same group of 1,700 students, ages 12 to 18, from all four major Alberta subway school departments have already been interviewed three times for the project – once in September after returning to school, once in December when classes were back online The third group of surveys is currently being collected. A fourth wave of data collection is carried out at the end of the school year. Kelly Schwartz, Associate Professor at the University of Calgary (University of Calgary) Participating students complete a survey asking students to respond to specific questions related to their stress response to COVID-19 if they are concerned about it and this affects their sleep and other physiological experiences. They are also asked questions about their mental health, including how sad or worried they feel, how they adapt to life and where they feel most supported during a pandemic. “Seventy to 75 percent of the students in our sample say they can handle it. They adapt. They adapt,” Schwartz said. “Our message is that the majority of students are doing well, but there are roughly a quarter of the students in our sample who are not doing well.” Schwartz said the data shows some interesting age and gender differences. “Women aged 15 to 18 reported stress in critical areas, more than men and younger teenagers,” he said. The results agree with the data from the CBE’s own student survey, which was collected at the beginning of this school year. It was found that 11th grade girls had the highest levels of anxiety and depression. Overall, Schwartz said the data tells us that children adapt to things just fine. “When you consider how many times in the past year they have seen these major social and educational changes, it is quite remarkable that they are doing as well as they are,” he said. “These are not small changes that they had to adapt to. So we are very encouraged that they adapt and adapt as we can expect from both a clinical and a developmental perspective.” Usih said he learned that too. “The most important learning for us is the resilience that our students and staff have demonstrated,” he said. And when it comes to potential learning gaps, both CBE and CCSD say they are ready to work with students, families, and staff to address them over the next year. “This is no different than any other year because teachers are professionals and it is part of their job to assess where students are. Before COVID-19, students from all over the world came to Calgary classrooms,” said Szumlas. 12th grade student John G. Diefenbaker, Siraaj Shah, said this year he had taught him about his own resilience. John G. Diefenbaker, 12th grade student Siraaj Shah, said the circumstances of the pandemic had pushed him to set up a COVID-19 advocacy group for high school students. (Submitted by Siraaj Shah) “As a student who is heavily involved in my school, I felt like me.” I’ve learned that I’m very responsive to change. The pandemic on my hands, both online and in person at school, forced me to become a better person simply because I had to learn to think outside the box because there were so many restrictions on some of the work that we could do, “he said. He said one of the things he’s most proud of this year is working with fellow students to create the student union Flatten The Curve.” We did everything completely virtual. We never met face to face and still managed to make policy changes on a city and provincial basis. “Nagesh says that looking back over the past year, she has learned a lot about herself, both as a learner and as a student Percent not learning from home … I have to be in a classroom to study well, “she said.” And don’t take things for granted. Even in the last year before the pandemic, I didn’t take advantage of the opportunities. I would say ‘oh, maybe next time’ so I have to put myself out there. “