Teacher Chad Jobe, sixth from left, and students Cameron Schindler, left, River Neilson, Aiyana Fraser, Ella Roberts, Annabelle Johnnie, Mike Tran, Tobias Gillman and Zach Spoor-Hendrickson show art pieces they’ve created. (Karl Yu/News Bulletin)

Vancouver Island teachers say COVID-19 an ‘extraordinary’ learning experience

Pandemic has interrupted and altered the way education is operating

It’s been one year since B.C.’s declaration of a COVID-19 state of emergency and Vancouver Island school teachers have learned from their pandemic experiences.

Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools students were on spring break when the B.C. government temporarily suspended in-class instruction due to COVID-19 in March 2020. A majority of teachers and students were ordered to stay away from bricks-and-mortar schools until class resumed in June, and restrictions have carried over to the 2020-21 school year.

Rather than the usual two-semester system, schools in Nanaimo are using the quarterly system in 2020-21 and students take two classes at a time over 10 weeks before moving to the next quarter.

Jean Kloppenburg, Nanaimo District Secondary School art and photography instructor, told Black Press Media the quarterly system is a “big silver lining” for shop and arts teachers. Students seem to have a stronger focus when taking only two subjects, she said.

“There’s no falling through the cracks when you’re there for three hours; you can’t be a ghost in the classroom,” said Kloppenburg. “If you’re there for 60 and 80 minutes, you can slip through if you have a class of 25 and 30 … I find that just having that lower number of students to interact with, and have relationships with and check in on their learning, I get way more out of it.”

Kloppenburg said it is a more intense learning experience for all and she knows who’s not showing up for class and who needs extra help.

The pandemic saw an increase in sign-ups for the district Island Connect Ed distributed (distance) learning program, which runs 12 months a year. Justin Mark, Island Connect Ed principal, said in general, enrolment has “increased three-fold,” something that was hard to keep up with.

“I feel like we’ve gotten to the point where we’re appropriately staffed … I remember at the beginning with our elementary groups, we had three teachers from last year and we’d have 150 waiting to get new teachers,” said Mark. “So we’d have [teachers on-call] and we’d be passing out books and packages because we wanted to commit to parents right away to give them resources for them to work at home.

“Now we’re to a place where there’s one teacher and there’s a manageable number, 30 students, and they have that connection. They have a teacher.”

Mark said things settled down around Christmas, allowing staff to focus on student success. Staff identified students who needed support and came up with ways to assist.

“We’re getting to the point now where we’re really focused on individual student success for every family and at the beginning we were just trying to get stuff out. That’s how our lens has changed as our staffing’s changed,” he said.

Chad Jobe, teacher with Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools’ learning alternatives program, says the program has always been “relationship-focused” and there has been an emphasis on activity-based learning this year, with an increase in art and collaborative art pieces, for example.

The program’s teachers have had to change the nature of learning as they’ve seen an increase in certain types of package work, with “true outreach,” according to Jobe – teachers will go to homes, drop off work, talk with students over the phone, or online, and go back and retrieve the work.

Jobe said another impact of the pandemic has been more worry for students and their family members, some of whom are immunocompromised. He said the learning alternatives program is blessed with abundant space and has been vigilant about hand-washing, mask-wearing and sanitizing.

“I think there have been increases in anxiety for sure,” said Jobe. “We’ve seen anxiety increase amongst parents as well, where they’re worried about their kids coming in.”

Mark said the pandemic is something people can learn from.

“It’s been a roller-coaster, but we always talk about (how) this will be a year we look back on and say, ‘Do you remember when?’” he said. “It’s been an extraordinary year, but I think our staff has really realized the opportunity and the time we’re in and the importance of education at this time.”

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