Year in Review: A rollercoaster 2021 for local school divisions

·5 min read

As we close the books on another year affected by the ongoing pandemic, superintendents of all three Medicine Hat School Divisions spoke to the News about the challenges and successes of 2021.

Mark Davidson, superintendent of Medicine Hat Public School Division, said “the pandemic has had an impact on every aspect of school life, for students, families and staff. That has been hard on people in a lot of ways, but I think it’s also revealed strengths in the community, strengths among our students and staff.”

While Davidson acknowledged that online learning can be a struggle, his teachers worked hard to maintain continuity of learning. Besides maintaining a clear focus on learning, Davidson said the division’s first priority was taking care of people and families.

“I think the greatest challenge we face as a community is also represented in our schools in that the length of the pandemic and the extent to which it’s changed a lot about our lives and in some cases has fractured relationships, is having an impact on mental health,” said Davidson. “I am really proud at how our community, staff and students came together to make sure that we maintained continuity of learning and took care of our kids.”

Davidson said high school teachers have learned skills teaching in the quarter system they plan to take back into the semester system.

“(The year) 2021 has been a challenging year certainly, but it’s also been a year where we’ve learned a lot about our own capabilities as an organization, as individuals,” said Davidson. “We’ve learned a lot about the opportunity we have in education to be a really positive, caring and stabilizing force for our community. I’m proud of what all of the people that work in our schools including our students have done and I feel like all of that learning we’ve done, and the resilience that we’ve shown, will serve us well when we come out the other end of the pandemic.”

Dwayne Zarichny of Medicine Hat Catholic School Division said his biggest worry has been the concern about having to switch back to at-home learning.

“We know that our students learn best when they’re in a class with their teacher and also with their classmates. It not only benefits them academically but also with their social and emotional growth as well. I think that concern has been one of the biggest challenges we face.”

Despite the difficulties of the necessary back-and-forth, Zarichny said it has led to advancements in how children are educated using technology.

“Staff are engaging in that work,” said Zarichny. “That’s really exciting because we’ve seen now that some of these techniques work and they are just another tool in a teachers tool box that they can use to provide supports.”

Zarichny anticipates the release of new curriculum in the fall.

“Hopefully towards the spring we’ll have a better idea of what it looks like,” said Zarichny. “Then we’ll begin our work of professional development for the teachers that will be teaching the new curriculum and how to implement it in the fall.”

Zarichny said MHCBE is performing well, despite the stresses of the pandemic.

“I am just so proud of our jurisdiction, of our staff, our students, our parents. Our board is focused on student interests,”said Zarichny. “Despite being in the middle of a pandemic, Medicine Hat Catholic is one of the highest performing jurisdictions in the province. That really is a testament to those four groups working hard and collaboratively to ensure students success. Our jurisdiction continues to excel and I’m incredibly proud of all of the people that are involved in this work in supporting our students.”

Reagan Weeks, superintendent of Prairie Rose School Division, commended the response to the continued pandemic.

“Despite the many challenges that people have faced, teachers and support staff and the people working in schools have continued to respond to student needs and have continued to be innovative and create the kind of programming that students find engaging,” Weeks told the News.

The school division has implemented some initiatives in order to support students both socially and emotionally. They have partnered with HONE, an app where students share weekly how they are doing across seven domains, information that allows them to shape programming.

“Another example would be our Prairie Rose possibilities projects,” said Weeks. “We have had a number of different things implemented, including learning from the land, where students are engaging in Outward Bound trips to really interact with the land and learning more about how we can be stewards of the land and enjoy the quality of life it has to offer in our beautiful province.”

Several equine programs have also been developed, including rodeo programming and equine therapy.

“We have some programming that we’re really proud of, everything from the flight academy to our Southern Alberta Hockey Academy,” Week explained. “I would be remiss to fail to mention the farm that was launched at Irvine School, the Irvine Agricultural Discovery Centre, another really exciting example of things that have come out during the pandemic.”

PRSD announced a micro-credentialing partnership with Medicine Hat College earlier this fall, something Weeks said they’re very excited about. Weeks is proud of the continued development of PRSD.

“The impact of changes in practise as a result of the restrictions comes with greater levels of stress as our staff continues to strive to improve learning, but they have really risen to the occasion and we are incredibly proud of our staff members, our parents and community and most of all our students,” said Weeks. “The team really demonstrates how sometimes during the most trying times, we’re able to encourage, engage and empower people.”

LAUREN THOMSON, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Medicine Hat News

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