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Responding, Recovering and Re-imagining

Tuesday, May 19, 2020 - 15:22

Why prioritizing well-being is essential to finding the “new normal” in education

It’s been more than eight weeks since Ontario schools closed to help slow the spread of COVID-19. And while, according to public health experts, the actions we’ve taken as a province are flattening the curve, the impacts of the pandemic have been significant and are likely to be long-lasting.

Now—as we begin to anticipate the easing of restrictions and the eventual re-opening of schools—more than ever before, educators are aware that they’ll be called on to foster the well-being of school communities. What, exactly, will the new normal for education look like? It’s too early to know for sure, but Ophea’s Board Members—representing education, health, sport and academia—are thinking ahead and have shared their thoughts about the future of education and the importance of student well-being with us.

Ontario families are struggling.

“The overall well-being of students, faculty and parents is a basic element of our daily priorities,” points out Jason Dupuis, Surintendant de l'éducation chez Conseil des écoles catholiques du Centre-Est.

Well-being is always central to our education system. Students can’t learn—and we can’t teach—without it. It’s especially vital now: none of us have faced a situation like this before and anxieties are running high. “The mental health and well-being of families is at crisis levels,” says Carla Robbins, Principal at Don Mills Middle School in Toronto, Ontario.

Susan Stewart, Director of the Chronic Disease & Injury Prevention Division at Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox & Addington Public Health agrees. “There is emerging evidence that the current isolation is having negative impacts on the mental health and well-being of adults, and issues such as domestic violence are increasing during this time which will greatly impact the mental health of children.”

While, as educators, we are doing our best to respond to student needs through distance learning, we can also foresee that we’ll soon be called on to aid more directly in their recovery. At the same time, COVID-19 has paused life as we know it and given us an opportunity to re-imagine our priorities as we move toward finding a new normal in education.

Health and Physical Education has an important role to play.

Health and Physical Education (H&PE) will have an important role to play when schools re-open. In fact, it’s already proven essential to student well-being at this difficult time. “[It’s] the only curriculum where student outcomes and expectations directly related to well-being and social-emotional learning are fully embedded across all teaching,” points out Dr. Tim Fletcher, an Associate Professor at Brock University.

The implementation of the Health and Physical Education curriculum supports students in recognizing and managing stress, building resiliency, developing communication and emotional regulation skills, and solving problems. It sets the foundation for student well-being and learning.

Educators are already helping families to boost their well-being through H&PE-specific distance learning. One way they’re doing this is by sharing resources offered through Ophea’s H&PE at Home web section. The site features topics such as physical activities connected to mindfulness, dance, math, financial literacy, self-esteem, puberty, and internet safety.

In addition, Ophea has been promoting daily physical activity through a provincial challenge. “Encouraging parents to be active with their kids is good for everyone's mental and physical health,” says Janice Forsyth, an Associate Professor in Sociology and Director of Indigenous Studies at Western University.

Responding to student needs means understanding their realities.

As we face this crisis, whether to a greater or less extent, we’ve all had our sense of safety compromised. What’s more, “this health crisis has shed a laser focus on the inequities in the system and how [they] impact families,” explains Robbins. “The playing field is not equal and distance learning has made it more challenging.”

In addition to the strain brought on by isolation, some families are also facing food insecurity and job losses, while still others have parents working long hours in difficult conditions on the front lines or have lost family members to COVID. “Inequities also exacerbate opportunities for students to be well, including safely participating in outdoor activities like hikes, bike rides and walks,” Robbins points out.

Because nobody is operating at a hundred percent, and some are struggling more than others, expectations for distance learning need to be both reasonable and flexible. “Students will fare best if they know their teachers care more about their well-being than their ability to complete assignments,” says Lori Lukinuk, Ophea Past President and former Trustee from Thunder Bay.

Recovery will take time and patience.

“There has been a lot of research done on trauma, and I believe that this will need to be a focus when school resumes,” says Robbins.

Educators will be confronted not only with a backlog in learning to be addressed, but also with an enormous range of experiences and readiness-to-learn that students will bring to the classroom. “The initial focus will need to be on meeting students where they’re at,” says Heather Sears, Superintendent of Curriculum and Instructional Services, York Region District School Board.

Re-imagining a healthier future will require listening and learning as we go. 

“COVID-19 has triggered a complete re-framing of the way students are learning,” says Jeff Adams, Paralympian. “One of the major changes is the level at which parents are participating in the education process.” While parents will no doubt be relieved to see at home online learning return to the classroom, many have a new appreciation and respect for the work that goes into education.

This is good news, because to help students prepare to learn, educators will need to work with families more closely than ever, first and foremost to make sure that children’s basic needs—for food, safety, etc.—are supported. This will mean helping to address the broad recovery needs of the community, whether that involves expanding school snack programs, providing educational sessions for parents, or launching other initiatives. Now is the time to talk about health.

When it comes to H&PE, we’ll also need to rethink how things will look in the gymnasium. “Even after restrictions are lifted, the distancing piece is going to remain in place for some time,” says Fletcher. “We will need to think about what that will look like in physical education classes. What activities will be acceptable?”

The “new normal” will mean working together to ensure well-being.

“Families are making some realizations that changes need to be addressed in their personal lives,” says Dupuis. “The government needs to capitalize on this and make some important modifications to certain curriculums in our province. For example, the integration of social and emotional learning across all curriculum is something that they need to look at.”

With a deep understanding of social-emotional and physical well-being, H&PE teachers will be uniquely positioned to act as leaders as we work toward these changes; however, they can’t do it alone.

Teachers should reach out for support from their administrators, their boards, and from organizations like Ophea, who will be preparing the resources schools will need to support the kind of well-being that will once again equip students for academic success.

Most importantly, however, educators should remember to take it slowly and proceed cautiously to avoid burn-out and manage their own well-being. There is an opportunity to role model healthy, active living and teachers are front line in educating students and supporting families in this. “As caring adults in our students’ lives, we ourselves are some of the best predictors of how well they’ll recover and succeed. When we take care of ourselves, we’re role modelling to them how they can take care of themselves, too.” Concludes John Dance, Associate Director of Education and Superintendent of Human Resource Services, Simcoe County District School Board, and President of Ophea.