Building Community in a virtual world: V-day (+5)

Building Community in a virtual world: V-day (+5)

It’s a quiet Sunday morning. Looking out the kitchen window I can see a hockey net set up on the patio, a pitch-back and baseball gloves in one corner of the yard, and horseshoes strewn in another. The playgrounds are closed, outdoor tennis and basketball courts are locked up or surrounded by caution tape and so we have been forced to create our own alternative outdoor activity option for ourselves and our two teenaged boys. In addition, we are lucky in North Vancouver, there are beautiful wilderness parks and trails and a broad selection of places to walk the dog, or go for a hike and still maintain responsible social distancing. The streets are quiet, rush hour is a thing of the past, most stores are shuttered and theatres and cinemas are dark. It is tough to maintain a sense of community when our biggest public duty is to avoid being too close to one another.

So, what about school? School is the ultimate community builder. When Spring Break ended, our sons, after sitting around for two weeks, were dying to reconnect with their friends and their teachers. By contrast Rheanne and I had spent the previous three weeks in constant communication with our peers as we worked at putting together virtual learning plans and structures for our respective schools. For us, the compulsory “staycation” became more of a “workation” and, as last week began, all of us who had been exploring platforms, building teaching and learning sites, and ramping up our own technical skills, held our collective breaths as our teachers and tutors came back online and we began the headlong rush towards an April 1st launch of our virtual learning programmes.

V-Day was on us in a flash, and right on schedule, miraculously, wonderfully, our students reappeared in our lives. To be honest we didn’t know what to expect. Like us, they had been cooped up in their homes for over two weeks where your community shrinks to four walls and is made up of you and your nuclear family. It was a great reunion, lots of laughs and smiling faces (with maybe a few tears offline) as we began to adjust to this new definition of community. No fist bumps and corridor banter, no fort building and shooting baskets together on the playground, no walking to the corner at lunch to find some unhealthy snack but still, it was there. The sense of community and belonging hadn’t been broken by weeks of self-isolation, it had been strengthened. And, on the strength of that community, the process of teaching and learning began anew. It wasn’t the same, but it wasn’t all that different either. There was the give and take, the laughter, the light of understanding, and the quiet asking for help – in other words – school was back in session.

So, even though we only have our first week under our belts, here are two take-aways for me from the past five days.

1. Community means everything. I realized that I had taken for granted the power of networks and mutual support systems. My spring break was spent leaning on our network of school Heads from the lower mainland and across the country for their insight and support; our KGMS Board met regularly through Zoom to discuss issues and offer ideas; and, I especially profited from the energy, creativity and dedication of our school leadership team – four remarkable women who collectively reinvented our programme and refocused our financial and business plan and gave us the power to move forward to support our kids.

Last week I had told everyone that we would have to treat this week like it was the beginning of the school year. We would have to establish new routines and expectations, redevelop our “classroom” protocols, and get our students back into the swing of learning. I was totally wrong. Our students came roaring back, happy to have the structures of school returned to their lives, over the moon to reconnect with friends, tutors and teachers, and excited to get back to the business of learning.
Our staff was equally thrilled to see their kids, to touch base with colleagues and to have something to take their attention away from the dire news that seemed to constantly fill the airwaves. They have been amazing, retooling their programmes, adjusting their teaching and tutoring styles, mastering new communication platforms and doing what they love, working with students.

I had worried that our school community might be broken, it has grown stronger in adversity.

2. Common cause strengthens family. Our boys, although frustrated that they have been cut off from their friends and that many of their favourite pursuits (baseball, basketball, dance, theatre, etc.) have been cancelled, have still remained resilient. They have set up their home offices, and have thrown themselves into this new world with determination (if not enthusiasm!). They too have enjoyed the chance to reconnect with their larger school community. And, if Rheanne and I used to spend half our time talking about school, and kids and programme challenges, now it seems like we devote about 150% of the day doing it! Having said that, I get the better of that deal as she is the most creative and talented educator that I know. And, there is always something new for me to learn.

Finally, one added benefit of no practices, swim classes, or evening meetings is that there are more games nights, family puzzles have re-emerged on our dining room table, we have resurrected nightly family dinners and discovered, thanks to virtual school quiet hour, the pleasure of having lunch together most days.

On Friday after school we had a staff virtual “Happy Hour”. Over sixty of us (relegated to postage stamp sized windows on our respective computer screens) raised a glass together, talked over one another, were serenaded by our music teacher, and shared war stories about the week just passed. In other words, it was business as usual.

If this is what turns out to be the “new normal” for a while, I think that we are going to be okay.