My View from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: Trista Hollweck on School Closures and the Pandemic

This week IEN features an e-mail interview with Dr. Trista Hollweck, (@tristateach) Project Director of the ARC Education Project & Part-Time Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Ottawa.

This post is the eighth in a series that includes views from Chile, Japan, the Netherlands, Scotland, Liberia, Pakistan, and Australia. The “A view from…” series editors are IEN’s Thomas Hatch and Karen Edge, Reader/Associate Professor in Educational Leadership at University College London’s Institute of Education.

IEN: What’s happening with you and your family?

Trista Hollweck: Where I live in Ottawa, Canada, the final week of June marked the ‘official’ last days of the 2019-2020 school year. And what a strange year it has been. Since the start of 2020, my three elementary-aged children have been out of school due to a number of unusual events: a province-wide labour dispute, which resulted in a number of rotating strike action days, inclement weather (this year it seemed we had an unusually high number of snow days) and a global coronavirus pandemic that catapulted 91% of students across the world into a full-time ‘learning at home’ context. As a result of COVID-19, my husband and I have also found ourselves working at home and sharing space, screens and bandwidth with our children. To say that I have found the experience challenging is likely an understatement, but I also recognize my extreme privilege. There have been no deaths due to the coronavirus in my immediate circle. I also continue to have paid work, have access to technology and outdoor green space and share virtual schooling responsibilities with my partner. I know it could be a lot worse and it certainly has been for many and these disparities will continue into the future.

Dr Trista Hollweck. Photo: annemariebouchard.com

IEN: What’s happening with education/learning in your community?

TH: As I reflect on the end of this academic year, I am definitely relieved to have the weight of ‘learning at home’ off my shoulders for the summer. However, the recently released provincial reopening plan gives me pause. The plan requires school boards to prepare for three different scenarios: a normal school day routine with enhanced public health protocols, a modified school day routine based on smaller class sizes, cohorting and alternative day or week delivery, and at-home learning with ongoing enhanced remote delivery. My children are part of the Ottawa Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) who released their plan for a fall school schedule which breaks students into cohorts of 15, with one cohort attending school on Monday and Tuesday, all cohorts home Wednesday while schools are deep cleaned and a second cohort attending Thursday and Friday. Apparently, cohorts at home will be learning alongside those in school. There are many remaining questions about this plan for students, families and educators. How will students and staff be protected? Why the deep cleaning on Wednesday? How will students at home be learning simultaneously with those at school or will teachers be responsible for both in class and online workloads? As expected, this plan has not been well-received by parents and health care providers who have raised serious concerns about the safety and mental health of children if they remain isolated and take issue with some of the quality of distance learning. In response, there is an active movement advocating for a full return to school in the fall. Educators and school staff remain concerned about the health and safety protocols in any school reopening plan. Personally, I struggle with the possibility of continuing to balance work and home beyond the summer, especially since all our children’s summer camps were cancelled. In fact, I think 15-year-old Ontarian, Liv McNeil, brilliantly captures what I and so many are feeling at this moment in her short film “Numb” submitted for a pandemic assignment at the Etobicoke School of the Arts.

Usually at this time of the year I am feeling more chipper and optimistic, but instead I am left with a sense of loss. As a part-time professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Ottawa, I am disappointed for the teacher candidates who were unable to complete their first practicum placements in schools and worried about what their second year might look like. As a mentor-coach and teacher leader, I am deeply worried for my colleagues and other teachers and school leaders who are very concerned about what the fall will look like, whether they will have the necessary time to plan and whether their health and safety will be considered. They are also exhausted from having to pivot rapidly from traditional bricks and mortar schooling to emergency remote learning, learn new instructional skills at breakneck speeds whilst simultaneously navigating often unclear and conflicting opinions and expectations from the Ministry, school district, union, parents, and education experts and public intellectuals. Many of them also remain very concerned about some of their students who they know have difficult home lives and feel quite helpless in being able to support and care for them. Finally, I feel sorry that so many students did not get to experience their proms and graduation events as they were intended. That said, a quick tour around my neighbourhood and across my social media feed shows just how creatively schools, families and communities have rallied to celebrate events, mark graduations and reimagine the traditional convocation ceremony. Lawns and windows are dotted with signs broadcasting that a “Graduate from the Class of 2020 lives here” and it is inspiring to see the sheer volume of innovative virtual proms, farewell tributes, and powerful commencement speeches. One of my friends who is a principal at a small school even told me that their individualized pandemic graduation approach was so well-received by students and families that it will likely become a school tradition. This idea of using the pandemic as an opportunity to rethink schooling- to build on what is working well and discard that which has long been broken, also leaves me feeling a sense of hope and inspiration for the future of public education. I do not yearn for a return to ‘normal’ schooling which has never served all children well or equitably. Rather, we have an important opportunity to learn from this unique pandemic experience and build our system back better.

This idea of using the pandemic as an opportunity to rethink schooling – to build on what is working well and discard that which has long been broken, also leaves me feeling a sense of hope and inspiration for the future of public education

IEN: What do you/your community need help with?

TH: In Ontario, it is safe to say that from a parental perspective the remote emergency teaching and learning has been a bit of a mixed bag. Whilst some educators have been incredible in their ability to offer innovative and impressive distance learning provisions, others seem to have struggled. Moving forward into a hybrid or blended learning situation, there will need to be opportunities for educators to learn from and support one another through mentoring and coaching, collaborate in professional networks, have clearer expectations for what is expected and access useful professional learning and development. During the pandemic, there have been incredible professional learning offerings. I have found curated resources on websites, webinars and online workshops focusing on trauma-informed approaches to teaching, culturally responsive approaches, restorative justice in education, repurposing our pedagogies, and building community in an online environment very useful. I think teachers and school leaders will need help navigating the sheer magnitude of available resources. Clear expectations and directives as to what effective distance learning and hybrid learning should look like would also help.

Systems will also need to find and fund supportive structures for the social and emotional wellbeing of students, teachers, school staff, school leaders and the wider school community. As an educational community, we will also need to take a moment to consider the purpose of schooling and reject practices that are not aligned with our aims. We must also listen to our students. Whereas some have thrived with self-directed learning, others as Liv McNeil captured in her video have found it a soul-destroying experience. In my own family, it has been hardest on my grade-five son, despite his teachers’ best efforts. With organization and self-direction already an issue, virtual schooling required constant supervision and prodding. He dreaded the twice weekly google meets (even though they were very well-structured), never remembered to submit assignments (even though they were complete and the platform was easy to use) and overall, missed learning by listening in class and the supportive feedback he received daily from his teachers. As he said to us, “I always liked doing my work at school so I never had homework and now all I have is homework.” Incredibly, his teachers noticed his struggles and set up individual weekly chats to keep him on track and check in. Going forward, we will need to continue to be creative in our instructional approaches, embed new pandemic pedagogies, prioritize wellbeing and relationships, collaborate and learn with and from other systems, work with stakeholders, and be innovative in finding ways to get all students learning in a safe and consistent manner.

“I always liked doing my work at school so I never had homework and now all I have is homework”

IEN: What resources/links/supports have you found most useful?

TH: In my work as the Project Director for the ARC education Project, I am fascinated by how our different member systems are managing the pandemic and education. I am also following what we can learn from other responses across the country and globe (see Educational International, the OECD, HundrEd, Unicef, People for Education, UNESCO). I believe Ontario can learn a lot from and with its global partners and that we need more ways to share our experiences and include key stakeholder voices at the decision-making table. Twitter has always been an excellent resource for me as an educator and it has been truly wonderful during the pandemic. I have an opportunity to learn from educators around the world and access content and practices I may not normally. I have been following People for Education, Carol Campbell and Caroline Alfonso among others to give me insight on what is happening in Ontario. I have also been actively engaged with my Facebook friends and gauging their responses to the numerous articles and opinion pieces that I am posting. This helps me get a sense of different perspectives and keeps me thinking critically. There are no easy solutions and no plan that will make everyone happy. Finally, as a mentor-coach and practitioner, I have appreciated Growth Coaching International’s #curiousconvos webinars (and even participated in my first one) as well as the resources made available by the Instructional Coaching Group and Cult of Pedagogy.

A typical day at home. Photo: Trista Hollweck

IEN: What are you reading, watching, listening to that you would recommend to others?

TH: During this time, I have been co-teaching a graduate course in the Faculty of Education at the University of Ottawa with my colleague Dr. Linda Radford called Pandemic Pedagogies: Responsive Teaching and Learning in Times of Crisis. Together with our students, we have been thinking with and against Deborah Britzman’s (1998) Lost subjects, contested objects toward a psychoanalytic inquiry of learning and Cherie Dimaline’s (2017) young adult fiction novel “The Marrow Thieves.” This course has been very helpful to push my thinking and help me make sense of my own pandemic experience. As other writers have noted, dystopian books (I am revisiting Margaret Atwood’s body of work), movies and TV series are bizarrely comforting to me during this time.

IEN: What have you found most inspiring?

TH: I have found many moments of inspiration during the pandemic. It is amazing to see how quickly schools and districts have found innovative ways to deliver food, social services support, technology and mobile hotspot devices to students as well as how they’ve delivered curriculum using online, radio, television and printed methods. So many teachers have been incredibly innovative in their pandemic pedagogies and their use of online platforms and social media apps such as Tik Tok and Instagram to connect with their students. Colleagues at my previous school district, the Western Quebec School Board (WQSB), are also a constant source of inspiration. Since most elementary schools outside of the greater Montreal area in the province of Quebec reopened in May, I believe we can learn a lot from their experience and creativity (see the interviews with WQSB teacher Letha Henry and principal Sam Halpin). Ultimately, I tend to dwell in a place of hope and am inspired to believe that together we can use this terrible situation to catalyze transformational change and improve our public education system.

2 responses to “My View from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: Trista Hollweck on School Closures and the Pandemic

  1. Pingback: A View of School Closures and Remote Learning From Emma Hua in Shanghai | International Education News

  2. Pingback: Disruption and Rapid Response: A View of School Closures in Uganda From Educate! | International Education News

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