Unprecedented. Dramatic. Dangerous.
These are just some of the countless adjectives that commentators have attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has scrambled the social architecture, norms and events of western societies, including the undisputed climax of secondary education, high school graduation.
Sally Hansen, principal of Stelly’s Secondary School in Central Saanich, offers a more neutral interpretation, as she and her counterpart at Parkland Secondary School, Lizanne Chicanot, reflect on grad in the age of COVID-19.
“For me, it’s different,” said Hansen. “It doesn’t make it better, it doesn’t make it worse, it’s just different. With every challenge, there is an opportunity, and I truly hope that people take a chance to step back and reflect on the opportunities that have come out of this.”
For one, both schools have pre-taped their graduation ceremonies, and Chicanot hopes that graduating students will look back upon this time in their lives as a memorable period.
“Yes, obviously, it was difficult in some ways, but in some respects, this makes it [graduation] special in a very unusual way,” said Chicanot. “We have never done a grad where we have taped it, so there are certain things that we were able to infuse into this virtual grad that we aren’t able to do typically.”
Hansen echoes this idea in noting that this year’s graduating class will be the first one to have graduated virtually.
“Which is in and of itself pretty cool,” she said.
Students at both schools will graduate into an era whose rules — both negative and positive — are still emerging. Commentators have also pointed out that the pandemic has caused many youth to lose their jobs, while disrupting their future educational and professional opportunities. But both Hansen and Chicanot see opportunities.
Hansen said the pandemic gave students a chance to determine what kind of learners they are in forcing them to realize how much more self-directed they need to be.
“I think they have also learned how to utilize technology in more productive way — not just for the social component, but truly as a tool for learning and work,” said Hansen. In fact, she predicts that this development will be a growing sector for employment. “And I’m hoping that the kids will step back and pay attention to that and realize that that is an area where they are going to have to refine their skills and possibly search out employment opportunities in that area versus some of the traditional areas where they may have looked at.”
For Chicanot, the pandemic has forced everybody, including students, to learn new things and improve their communication skills, invaluable tools at any time. She also hopes that this experience will help them build some resiliency skills.
“Every time we go through some difficult situation, it has the potential of strengthening us,” said Chicanot. “I hope that the students have become strengthened. I also hope that they have a greater sense of responsibility to our community as a whole and our planet.”
Society, she said, has to continue to progress, cautiously, but also confidently. “Don’t let fear grab hold of you and prevent you from taking further steps,” she said. “We have obviously had to be much more careful and we have had to adjust the way we are doing everything and my worry is that some people have gone into a place of being fearful of everything.”
Hansen strikes a similar tone.
“I think I had about five different versions of possible messages that I was going to deliver, but I never really nailed down my final decision until about a month prior to graduation,” she said. “But when COVID-19 hit, they pretty much disappeared and I had to re-jig my thinking. As I say in my speech, it was a bit challenging because initially the perspective everybody had was that it was quite negative.”
The contrary is the case though, she said. “If you choose to look at it through a different lens, there are a lot of positive spins that you can put on it,” she said.
Specifically, Hansen focused on what she called the “gift of time” from several angles. “With time, you get a chance to step back and reflect on what is important to you and re-establish the priorities that you had in life, and maybe going forward, appreciate those moments that maybe you did not appreciate in the same way that you did before.”
As if to prove this point, Chicanot offered this final insight about the 2020 graduating class. “We feel sad in a sense that we didn’t get more time with these students,” she said. “The only regret is that we missed out on some of our time together because these are really fine young people and they bring so much energy and dynamism and enthusiasm.”
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