A Profound Gratitude

June 30, 2021

With the recent Ministry announcement that our schools will be returning to Stage 1 (“near normal”) operations for the coming year, I cannot help but reflect on the enormity of what we have accomplished this year in our province, and particularly here in Abbotsford. Put simply, our staff – all of them – have done a phenomenal job of keeping our schools open and functioning during a global pandemic, the likes of which none of us have ever experienced. This is worthy of celebration and profound gratitude.

As you look around the globe to see how other jurisdictions handled schooling, you develop a greater appreciation for just how well we have done here. On several occasions during the course of this year, I had the opportunity to speak with colleagues from across the country and in the United States. I was surprised to discover that most districts south of us held students out of school since March of 2020, and only started returning in April of 2021. Similarly, my colleagues were surprised when I told them that schools in BC have been open since September, even in the hotspot that was the Fraser Valley Health Region.

When asked about what we were doing, I was able to share the range of approaches being deployed to keep students engaged and learning. At the top of the list were our health and safety protocols. Parents and staff needed to know that schools were safe places to work and learn. Of course, this involved our teachers, support staff and administrators to implement and monitor and encourage consistency throughout the year. Another important strategy was the development of cohorts. By creating a sort of “bubble” for students within their school, we could also limit the potential spread of the virus. The other important feature was contact investigation, no small feat. Our colleagues in Fraser Health pull out the stops in working with us to create a robust system of contact tracing, targeted communications, and isolations. Finally, we also created options like the Flex Program for families who could not physically attend school. All of these things combined to create a pretty effective educational experience in this province, something worthy of celebration.

Most certainly it was not easy, and we have had several complex issues to navigate. The health and safety protocols were not perfect, and we had to keep changing them as we learned more, certainly causing some frustration among staff and parents. Ask any high school student and he/she will tell you that the cohort system was not ideal because they had to go home at lunch every day. Also, as we have come to learn, contact tracing is not an exact science. The system was consistently confounded by timing issues and “amateur contact tracing.” When the third wave hit its peak, we were isolating more staff than we could consistently replace, creating instructional continuity issues in several of our schools. And if you think back to January, several parents in the now-closed “Transition Program” were not exactly happy about requiring their kids to return to face-to-face instruction. Finally, perhaps the biggest heartbreak of the school year was the sizeable list of things we could not do, all the way from sports competitions to graduation proms. There were indeed lots of sacrifices made, and our students in grade 12 perhaps felt them the most.

Having said that, however, the winning narrative for the year will be one of success. We remembered that schools were more important than COVID -19 is dangerous. As I told our principals recently, our successes punctuate the fundamental importance of a public education system not just to the children we obviously serve, but broadly to the society in which we live. When children are successful, we not only create bright futures for them, but we sew the seeds of optimism and hope for society. It’s a reminder that when you are clear about your mission, you can find ways to accomplish it, even under the direst of circumstances. I cannot thank our staff enough for their tremendous work and dedication in making this a successful year when our community needed it most.