Distinguishing the Weather from the Work

October 26, 2021

As a way of keeping our focus on the teaching and learning in our schools, I have drawn a distinction between the “work”, our primary focus on providing for the educational needs of our students, and the “weather”, the conditions under which we do this work. In uncertain times if we are not careful, we sometimes confuse the two. While it is clearly important to ensure that we are following all the public health protocols, caution must be extended to ensure that this does not become the primary focus of our discourse and practice. From my standpoint, the number one reason why we were so successful last year was because we let our mission take precedence over the difficult conditions under which we were fulfilling it.

As we continue navigating the pandemic and accepting that the school year so far is not nearly as “normal” as we had hoped it would be, my advice and conviction remains the same. The newest weather issue before is mandatory vaccinations. While vaccinations rates in our province are among the highest in the country many of us are contending with two things:

  • Uptake on vaccinations is not as high as we would have thought
  • COVID-19 has not receded into the background to the extent we hoped

In response to this, some jurisdictions and organizations have mandated vaccinations for their employees. This has been extended to include students in some jurisdictions in the US. Predicably this has become the topic of conversation in the media, which pits the unvaccinated against the vaccinated, the authority of the “state” against the freedoms of the individual, the short-term benefits against the long-term ramifications, and so on. While these debates are important (providing that they occur respectfully) for a democratic society, the educator in me worries that we are missing a bigger and more compelling point in all of this: kids and their teachers are coming to school every day and joyfully engaging in learning! Caution must be extended to ensure that the sum total of the public discourse about our education system is not reduced to speculating about whether or not all the teachers in your child’s elementary school are vaccinated, but rather that schools are open, and are doing interesting and engaging work. I spoke with some secondary students last week, and their faces lit up as they explained how excited they were that sports, musical performances and grad events are back! This is what matters most.

I will point out that that in many cases things are not back to “normal” in our schools, and this is the place where our attention ought to be squarely focused. Many of our students and staff are not thriving. Some of our staff are struggling. Picture for a moment the cohort of grade nine and ten students in our schools right now. Think about their very different school experiences last year, and you can understand why some of these students might be struggling with school right at this moment. Think about the things needed to meet the needs of these students right now. Should the discourse in our schools and amongst teachers, supports staff and administrators be centred on these very students, or should it be more focused on whether or not the Ministry or boards should/will be establishing mandatory vaccinations? In my view, the answer is clear that we should be placing a laser focus on the wellbeing of our kids and the people who nurture them. This is what matters most.

I do not wish in any way to diminish the importance of vaccinations. I think the evidence is clear that it is the best tool in our arsenal to reduce the spread of COVID-19, and the severe outcomes associated with infection. As a superintendent I have relied heavily on the expertise of our medical health officers to guide us through this difficult terrain. I trust their advice and highly recommend those who can to be vaccinated. Their expertise has taken what would have been uninformed guesswork about the protocols we have established to keep schools open and safe. To extend my metaphor, the staff at Fraser Health Authority were the umbrella that we all used to shield ourselves from the bad weather of COVID-19, and which we used to help us focus on OUR work of teaching and learning. It stands to reason as we continue this difficult journey that we in education keep working with medical professionals to help us do what we were trained to do: teach students. This is what matters most.

I suspect that the issue of mandatory vaccinations will remain on the agenda for weeks to come, and when it subsides I have no doubt that it will be replaced by another issue, equally determined to sway us from what matters most. As I have said to our principals (and whomever else will listen), when there is a spike in the “noise” we must focus on the difference we want to make in the lives of our students. They are counting on us, as are our staffs. That’s the work. The rest is the weather.