Pivoting with compassion




It’s only been a month since BC Minister of Education Rob Fleming announced face-to-face instruction would be suspended across the province until further notice. While the rest of us headed into the strangest spring break ever, senior leaders at Comox Valley Schools (School District 71) began an intense period of planning and preparation that’s ongoing to this day. Their main concerns—after health and safety—have been learner engagement and how the schools can help the Valley’s essential workers and most vulnerable families.

The district leadership team includes elementary and high school principals and VPs, the superintendent and assistant superintendent, the director of instruction, and representatives from IT, HR, Finance, and communications. Their days are filled with Zoom meetings, phone calls, and strategy sessions.

As District Communications Manager Mary Lee acknowledges, many Comox Valley families are facing “almost overwhelming stress” from economic hardship, fear of COVID-19, worries about childcare, and trying to help their children keep up with schoolwork while attempting to work, whether from home or out in the world.

Her messages to everyone are heartfelt: “We know this is stressful. We have the students’ best interests at heart. Please reach out to your school teachers or principals if you’re having challenges.” And—possibly most important—“Nobody will be left in the dust.”

She’s referring to Minister Fleming’s March 17 letter to parents: “Every student will receive a final mark, and all students on track to move to the next grade will do so in the fall…Every student eligible to graduate from Grade 12 this year will graduate.” But she’s also reflecting on the tremendous determination of Comox Valley educators to imagine and deliver a new way of teaching.

Pivoting to online learning

In the past few weeks, we’ve seen a massive and remarkably quick pivot to online learning. Of course, everything is subject to change as new information comes to light. District Director of Information Technology Josh Porter says “We’re going week by week, day by day. We can’t predict for next week—we can only plan for what we think might be happening.” And Lee affirms, “We are still in the early days of mapping this out.”

Porter and his team ramped up their workload over spring break to prepare for what they knew would be a huge surge in the use of the district’s online educational tools. Before the pandemic struck, Porter says, all teachers had access to online resources like e-portfolios and online assignment tracking, but the majority of them were using these “in bits and pieces.” Now, though, the use of Microsoft Teams “has gone through the roof. Everyone [teachers] is using it as much as they can. They’ve had two to three weeks of learning—everyone has been willing to try and dive right in.”

Solving technical challenges

Online learning poses its challenges. It’s often more useful for older students than those in early elementary school. Not all families have access to enough computers or other devices. Some parents are bewildered when it comes to navigating their children’s online learning environment.

For all of these issues, the IT department is working on solutions. Parents can pick up paper packets of schoolwork for their elementary school kids. The IT team has already loaned out a couple of hundred iPads and laptops to families who need them. And there’s a dedicated help desk ( or 236-269-2000, operating Monday-Friday) to assist parents and students with accessing Office 365, Microsoft Teams, and other software.

There’s an internal help desk for the teachers and administrators who’ve embarked on a steep learning curve in the last few weeks in order to keep their students engaged and connected. “Once you dig in and learn the technology, the possibilities become apparent,” says Christine VanderRee, the principal of Queneesh Elementary School.

For example, Queneesh successfully held its first PAC virtual meeting last week. One of the main questions that came up was “how to move forward as a school when we don’t know what’s coming.”

Maintaining social connections

While the answer to that question is still a work in progress, it’s certain that for many elementary school children, one of the most important elements of school is the social, emotional and cultural support it provides. So one of VanderRee’s main goals in the months ahead is for teachers to make sure they’re “virtually attached to our kids so they still feel connected to the school.”

Porter, too, notes that it’s important that there is interaction still going on: for many kids, missing their friends is a big challenge, so they enjoy seeing their teachers and classmates via classroom chats. While it’s not like normal school, “It’s working; I think teachers are becoming more confident in this,” he says.

If you feel that things are not working for your family, Lee urges you to contact your child’s teacher or school administrator to communicate your concerns and explain what you need help with: “It’s very complex. There is no cookie-cutter solution,” she says, “We’re trying to make allowances for every family. We will sit down and map out a way to make it manageable for you.”

Like Lee, VanderRee emphasizes that the lines of communication are open and offers empathy to everyone trying to adjust to our unsettling new reality. She cites the paper schoolwork packets that are now available for parents to pick up: “We really want families to understand this is meant to problem solve. It’s not meant to be a pressure on people.”

On a positive note, Porter gives shoutouts to his team—“It’s been amazing having a staff that can adjust and pivot. They’ve worked very hard”—while VanderRee urges us to “celebrate the creativity we’re seeing across the district”—staff video messages and teacher parades, for example, that she calls “amazing ways of bridging our hearts.”

Info to remember

School administrators and clerks are at work in the schools. Teachers are mainly working from home. If you are facing challenges, get in touch and ask for help. Tech issues with using the portal, logging in to Office 365, or accessing Microsoft Teams? Contact the SD71 IT Helpline at or 236-269-2000. Visit this site for regular updates from the school district:

Four principles from Ministry of Education and SD 71 guiding decision making around education

• Maintain a healthy and safe environment for all students, families and employees.
• Provide the services needed to support children of our essential service workers in the community.
• Support vulnerable students who may need special assistance.
• Provide continuity of educational opportunities for all students.