Deputy Minister Dana Rudy joined the Department of Education in February 2020, just a few weeks before the education minister announced that schools would be closed for three weeks.
“It definitely was not the easiest way to join a department, but because we were dealing with something that was so incredibly new, I didn’t feel alone or out of place,” she said. “I felt like we were all in it together learning about a new virus and kind of forging a path together that none of us have been on.”
She quickly connected with stakeholders to ensure all voices were at the table, as the COVID-19 numbers continued to rise across Canada. And for a year now she has been the primary contact day-to-day and week-to-week with the education community.
“I didn’t have a clear sense about the stakeholder relationships going into this. But the lack of assumptions was beneficial. We are all incredibly proud of the relationships that have been built.”
Those partners, including MTS, have met online almost every week to discuss what is going well and what isn’t. It’s during those meetings, MTS has been able to highlight problems teachers are facing and request policy changes. A number of those requests have been met.
Rudy said that bringing Donna Davison, Coordinator of the COVID Response Unit into the department to help ensure a strong rural and school division perspective at the table, has been very helpful, along with the efforts of many department staff and stakeholder organizations.
The Department of Education recently conducted a reflection of its winter action plan which included a list of priorities to be accomplished within 60 days of the new calendar year. Rudy said that almost all the priorities were checked off the list well before the 60-day deadline but acknowledged that the low COVID numbers have played a role.
“Had we been in a situation with more community transmission or if we find ourselves there in the future, many of those priority actions will be critical,” she said. “Things can change on a dime, and we must be prepared.”
She said that throughout the pandemic she has been in contact with the Chief Public Health Officer and members of the Public Health team, sometimes many times a week.
“From the very beginning we made some decisions and principles about how we were going to proceed. One of the very first principles we made was that we were going to follow public health advice. It’s been a great working relationship.”
For the current school year, Rudy said the goal was to start the year off on a good footing with the focus on in-class learning.
“We put all of our efforts and energies over the summer into trying to put as many provisions and public health measures in place as we could with a focus on in-class learning,” she said.
She said that division’s opening schools in June was a hard decision but was an important step to achieving a level of comfort for the public, returning during the pandemic.
“We thought it was the best step towards being able to successfully open schools in the fall.”
Rudy pointed to the lack of connections with people as being a challenge of working in the pandemic.
“One of the major things that makes this the hardest is the lack of in-person connections,” she said. “When you can get in a room and plan things out or put things on the white board, you’re definitely able to move things much more quickly than when you’re working in a virtual way. But we have learned to adapt.”
She said that she can appreciate and understand how teachers must feel everyday as they try to connect with their students who are not in the same environment.
“I’m proud of the fact that we’ve been able to sustain the level of response planning and partnership for almost a year now, and that Manitoba has had so much success in keeping schools safe and open,” she said.
A year into her role, Rudy has learned a few lessons.
“The education system is actually quite resilient. We have seen creativity and innovation emerge. I’ve seen positive stories of how teachers and school staff have really risen to the challenge and are doing things to make things better for students through these really difficult times, to make sure that learning continues,” she said.
Another key takeaway is the importance of effective communications.
“You can never communicate enough. It doesn’t matter how many times we thought we were clear on our message, it was important for us to keep talking and keep the lines of communication open,” she said. “We ultimately want to create an education system that has standards and is consistent so we can move forward together.”
Samantha Turenne is a writer for the Manitoba Teacher magazine and the Public Affairs Facilitator for The Manitoba Teachers’ Society.