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‘We really had to change everything’: Surrey schools continue to adapt to COVID-19 changes

On March 17, 2020, in-class learning was suspended indefinitely as the pandemic first hit
Annie Ohana, a teacher at L.A. Matheson Secondary, speaks to her Grade 8 class on Friday, as the district was preparing for its two-week spring break. (Photo: Lauren Collins)

The second in a four-part series looking at how people in the community are rebuilding a year after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic on March 11, 2020.

Part one: ‘Long COVID’: How a Surrey man is dealing with the effects of the virus one year later, March 11, 2021

When it comes to schools and education in the last year, it’s all about adapting.

A year ago Wednesday, the province suspended in-class learning indefinitely less than a week after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, and just as students and staff across B.C. were starting their spring break.

RELATED: B.C. to suspend K-12 schools indefinitely due to COVID-19, March 17, 2020

RELATED: Surrey Schools says ‘lots of work and planning’ to do for March 30 despite no students, March 19, 2020

“To say it was a scramble is really an underestimation of what it was like,” said LA. Matheson Secondary teacher Annie Ohana, adding that on the last day before spring break, the high school was on lockdown when a staff member was stabbed. “We were in a very different headspace.”

Ohana, who teaches social studies, said it was “tumultuous” at the start.

“We really had to change everything. The curriculum we taught, things we had to cut out, learning all kinds of new systems that we really hadn’t been using as much before,” she said.

“But it really was, how do we come together as a staff to really understand what we’re trying to do, but with the really real understanding that with all these adaptations, the biggest thing we had to adapt to was the fear and the anxiety that COVID was causing ourselves and our students.”

Beyond the curriculum, Ohana said staff had to figure out how to connect virtually with students that were really fearful.

“So all of that, and by the way, we want you to teach.

“That was just March.”

READ ALSO: ‘Having to re-invent the way they do their work’: What learning could look like in Surrey amid COVID-19, March 28, 2020

READ ALSO: Surrey parents, students navigate remote learning during COVID-19, April 3, 2020

READ ALSO: ‘An infinite number of questions’ as Surrey Schools looks to balance face-to-face, remote learning, May 8, 2020

Surrey school district Superintendent Jordan Tinney said he doesn’t think people look back and realize the scope of changes on schools.

“On March 30, 2020, we did something we’ve never done before (by switching to remote learning). Then along comes June and we did it again. Then along comes July, and we did it again (by planning to return to schools full time),” Tinney noted.

“There were so many times in the past year when we’ve asked the school districts around B.C. to do something they’ve never done before, to change in a way they’ve never changed before. And it’s been remarkable I think how people have pivoted, but now it’s part of the culture, it’s part of the way people teach.”

Mark Corbishley, a P.E. teacher at L.A. Matheson, said it’s been tricky keeping up with these changes.

“Luckily, being a P.E. teacher, a lot of it is you fly by the seat of your pants depending on what the weather is like or how many kids are in the class. It’s just a lot of stress and anxiety constantly,” he said.

“You can’t really have a clear vision of what you want to do because things are changing so often and so frequently that even when you think you do have a good game plan, there are so many other inconsistent variables that could come into play which can throw your game plan off.”

One class Corbishley teaches is an all-girls weight training class. He explained he has to teach “two separate groups of students two different types of materials.”

“But, unfortunately for the online kids, they don’t get that practical experience of being in the weight room and getting to do that hands-on learning,” Corbishley said. “I can be like, ‘Hey, do this workout at home, it’s a bodyweight workout,’ but how many of the students are actually doing it?”

However, when schools switched to remote learning last spring, Corbishley noted his students were “much more open” in explaining to him their situations with mental health or experiences of bullying.

“When we weren’t face-to-face, and we were behind that computer, they felt a little bit safer to open up. I noticed that I was able to build a lot more meaningful relationships, especially with my female students in regards to personal struggles, challenges and adversities that they faced and now overcome.”

Ohana said the ingenuity of teachers and the strength of students needs to be celebrated.

“When they came back in September for the face-to-face instruction, I was amazed to see children that were ready to learn and excited to be back. I think as teachers, we’d gotten used to the Zoom meeting and the teams, certainly in terms of accessibility for some teachers it has become easier.”

Ohana said using Microsoft Teams, which allows for file storage and videoconferencing, has been a “wonderful tool” for teachers to put lessons online if a student is away, which has “led to some improvement.”

RELATED: Surrey school district’s meal program to continue during COVID-19, March 31, 2020

She added what was “beautiful” about March to June was that while schools were technically shut down, they were still open to the BASES (Building Academic, Social and Employment Skills) program and the meal program for students in need.

“I still feel when people say the schools have to be open, I don’t disagree 100 per cent, but at the same time if some of us were remote who could be, that actually allows for more vulnerable families and students to actually get the supports they need. We did it so well.”

However, going into the 2021-22 school year, Ohana said teachers didn’t have enough time to prepare, “even though we begged for two weeks,” as plans kept changing for schools.

“I can say that September was very difficult because, again, we were entering the second wave and we really didn’t have any sense of what that meant. It was a little bit better in terms of online learning, blended. But again, because we were doing this on the fly, the movement of kids from in class, online.

“It’s never quite exactly what’s on paper. There were always adaptations that needed to be made.”

A Grade 8 class at L.A. Matheson Secondary on March 12, 2021. (Photo: Lauren Collins)

Ohana said teachers haven’t felt heard throughout the pandemic.

“As much as we’re trying to do in our classrooms, the health and safety element has always been problematic. And still now, I still don’t feel that our minister, Dr. Bonnie Henry, really most of the government, Fraser Health, don’t really have an understanding of what our classrooms are like,” she explained.

“The reality is, when you have 30 kids in any one of our classrooms — and I happen to have a fairly large classroom — it is packed. There is no way to separate six feet all the way around.”

Since the beginning of the school year, the district has sent out more than 2,000 COVID-19 exposure noticed.

And when students come back from spring break on March 29, the district will be implementing new health and safety measures – but still no mask mandate for elementary students.

READ ALSO: Surrey school district implements new COVID-19 health, safety measures, March 13, 2021

READ ALSO: Surrey School District releases video on new ‘intensive’ health measures, March 16, 2021

Meantime, a recent district budget survey asked if people were interested in continuing the blended learning option for the 2021-22 school year, which is a combination of face-to-face and online learning.

What that means for the future of schools and learning, Tinney said, “I think it could be here forever, it all depends on whether people sign up and whether it’s something people want. Coming out of the pandemic, we’re still going to face people who are very nervous in the fall, but maybe that will be gone in two or three years.”

But it comes down to funding and budgeting, he said.

“The trick will be, last year the reason we carried it off was because of the federal money that arrived late. So if there’s no federal money, that will be a challenge for us. That’s why it’s part of the budget consultation. It would have to be at no cost to the district.”

READ ALSO: Surrey Schools seeking community input for 2021-22 budget, March 4, 2021

Part three in this series will look at how small businesses have had to re-work their business model as the pandemic continues.

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Lauren Collins

About the Author: Lauren Collins

I'm a provincial reporter for Black Press Media's national team, after my journalism career took me across B.C. since I was 19 years old.
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