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Between hurdles such as rural Internet issues, emotional needs, and kids being kids, Northumberland Christian School has discovered that the path to teaching remotely relies heavily on the community they've always valued, reports Peter Stockland.

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Topics: Education, COVID-19
Upholding Community May 27, 2020  |  By Peter Stockland
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It didn’t take long after the mad scramble caused by COVID-19’s forced closure of Ontario schools for Ginette Mack to realize some things never change.

“Kids are kids,” Mack says looking back on the days after rural Northumberland Christian School resorted to online learning to keep the school year going. “Within the first week, kids were doing all kinds of tricks with their computers. They’d put a different image on the screen or turn themselves upside down in the middle of class. It turns out classroom management is almost the same whether you’re doing it remotely or in a building. As teachers, you just laugh.”

Initially, Northumberland’s principal adds, there was anything but certainty at the 75-pupil K-8 school outside Cobourg Ontario when Premier Ford announced at March Break that all schools, including independents, would be closed to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. The timing meant students had already gone home, leaving schoolbooks and materials behind in a locked-down building with an unknown re-open date.

“It was a huge learning curve over March Break,” Mack says. “We told our families that we’d open the school for a day, staff would be there, and people could come in, grab all the books, indoor running shoes, school supplies, library books and laptops for them to borrow. All we asked is that the practice social distancing, and we could get them what they needed.”

Step two was getting all staff up to speed and comfortable with on-line learning programs such as Google Classroom and Seesaw for the younger children. There was also working out the differences in Internet service within a rural Ontario catchment area. What would be simplicity itself for urban schools proved trickier when it came to the farm families who make up the Northumberland Christian community.

“Online live classes were not easy for us. We have staff as well as students with rural Internet so we knew right away we were going to have to provide a balanced approach of online and recorded videos of teachers.”

Finally, there was the emotional and spiritual challenge of addressing the fears some pupils felt because of the disruption of routine and, of course, from the mysterious threat of the pandemic itself. Conversations of careful listening and reassurance were vital, Mack says, to help make the transition from the familiar security of the bricks and mortar building to the abrupt disembodiment of the virtual world.

“They want to reach out to you, and they need to know that you’re still there and that you care for them. You show them that everything’s still going on, everyone’s still doing school, and they begin to feel a sense of normalcy. They begin to trust that it’s going to be all right.”

There were long days of eight, 10, 12 hours in front of computers for the teachers. There were points of exhaustion with how long it took to do what were once routine teaching tasks.

“As teachers, we’re so used to just being able to walk into the classroom and talk to kids about a topic, bring up a picture on an e-board, use it as a discussion point. You’re so used to being spontaneous and just going with the kids in the room.

“It’s hard to do a lesson when there’s no audience; to record it and pretend they’re answering; to take a long time to do all the things you’re used to pulling out of your back pocket as an educator. We’re not wired to do that. We’re wired to have people in front of us.”

Yet the very absence of pupils paradoxically affirmed for Mack the power of community within her Christian independent school. As staff and students worked hard to adapt, they also kept the routines so essential to that community life. Friday chapel morphed onto Facebook Live. A prayer leader parent moved over to Zoom. Parents sent videos of their kids dancing and singing during worship. Names were drawn for free books delivered to the home doorstep, and for a jar of candy at Easter.

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“At Easter, some of the middle schoolers did a little video project where they had the stations of the Cross to show what Jesus went through,” Mack says. “The family dog became a donkey.”

There was also acute awareness that the Northumberland community suffered and survived tragedies well before COVID-19 closed their building: the death of a teacher, heartache in families. It’s a community that is very much accustomed, in Mack’s words, to filling in the gaps for neighbours in need. It’s a community custom rooted in Christian conviction. It’s a community that has demonstrated its Christian conviction through the turmoil and laughter of COVID-19.

“As a Christian school, we believe there’s a way human beings are supposed to treat each other. The kids learn it, and it becomes part of who they are, it develops their character. We do it at the child’s level but also as teachers, as parents,” Mack says.

“We’re constantly practicing character ­– our convictions in our daily actions and interactions. The hope is that in the context of community, that gets to play out and be learned so when the emergencies, the crises, come you just know how to love your neighbour and take care of one another,” she adds.

Like kids, some things never change.

This is the third of Peter Stockland's series on how some Ontario independent schools succeeded in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Read the first part of the series on policy recommendations to strengthen Ontario's education for all students. 

The second part of the series reports on how John Knox Christian School in Oakville, ON got back on track so quickly.

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