EARLIER this year Pam Betts was on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land when dramatic news broke of the rapid spread of COVID-19 and the prospect of a global pandemic.
By year’s end Brisbane Catholic Education’s executive director finds herself preparing for a well-earned leave on her “beloved” Stradbroke Island.
In between, she has found herself consumed and exhausted leading Catholic schools across south-east Queensland, with responsibility for the wellbeing of 74,500 students and 12,500 staff, and supporting families through one of the most testing years on record.
“It was pretty demanding. It was a changing landscape and we really didn’t know what to predict,” Miss Betts said of the past nine months living under COVID rules and restrictions.
“We are exhausted and the people who work in our schools really do need a break.”
In the first week of March, Miss Betts was visiting Holy Land sites in Jordan with 22 school principals and Brisbane’s vicar general Monsignor Peter Meneely.
Her mind shifted from spiritual reflection to the urgent needs of schools and students on the other side of the world in Queensland.
The enormity of a potential global pandemic sank in immediately.
“In that week the whole world changed. I watched from afar,” she said.
“First of all, we couldn’t go in to Israel (because their borders closed before the Australian borders closed).
“Soon after, the Australian Government issued a warning for Australians not to travel internationally.”
Jetting back into Australia, Miss Betts and her group were among the first to go into home isolation for a mandatory two weeks.
She found her email inbox piled high and her days solidly filled with online meeting calls from early morning until late at night.
Brisbane Catholic Education had already jumped into action with a critical incident plan used several times over the past decade when significant floods and storms struck.
Those disasters were limited to recovery for a few schools and communities.
By comparison, preparing for a pandemic would be very different – widespread and long-lasting.
“A pandemic is completely unpredictable. It impacts on every school, and we have 142 in operation with two to open in 2021 and two more in the planning,” Miss Betts said.
“It impacts every family, every child in every school, every staff member and we learn with others about what impact a pandemic has on our schools and more broadly on our community.”
Quickly Brisbane Catholic Education set up a command headquarters at the O’Shea Centre at Wilston.
Led by BCE deputy director Dr Doug Ashleigh, a 25-member critical incident response team, which brought together staff from school operations, communications, work, health and safety, legal and senior leaders, prepared detailed plans for what needed to be done and how it would be carried out and, importantly, how these actions would be communicated to tens of thousands of staff, students and families.
“There was 24/7 media coverage and there was no doubt we had to respond and respond in the most responsible way to support the government’s efforts to limit the spread of the virus,” she said.
Miss Betts said she realised major adjustments would need to be made to existing disaster planning because of the length of time a pandemic would be impacting on all operations.
She is full of praise for Queensland’s chief health officer Dr Jeannette Young and her leadership.
“We followed the advice always of the chief health officer and basically mirrored the approach of the state schools,” Miss Betts said.
“It’s really all about limiting the spread of the virus in the community because of the virulent nature of the virus and the ease with which it spreads – which we had witnessed in China, in Italy and across the world at that time.
“Teachers, parents and students were all on board.
“Our school communities were just amazing.
“Communications were critical. The Queensland Catholic Education Commission played a very important role in co-ordinating communication across Catholic school authorities in Queensland.”
One of the advantages that BCE had from the start was the already widespread use of Microsoft Teams – online software that allowed meetings previously held face-to-face to take place virtually, and for students to connect with their teachers.
“Certainly, our proficiency in using that online platform has increased significantly,” Miss Betts said.
As schools went ahead with “alternative education programs”, everyone had to be considered.
Most students stayed home but schools remained open, with teachers becoming frontline essential workers, just as critical as doctors, nurses and other health carers.
“We always had kids at school that whole time because we do have parents who are essential workers, so their children came to school and other parents chose to send their children to school for various reasons and we always accepted them,” Miss Betts said.
“I think we faced this challenging and unprecedented time with great courage and also with that great hope that we have in Catholic education.
“For our schools it is all about the relationship we have with our families, that our teachers have with the students in their class, and that they have within the school community in supporting one another.
“That stood us in great stead to face what were really unpredictable and uncertain times.”
In the midst of the pandemic restrictions there was little time to congratulate the many acts of support and kindness, but now, Miss Betts can reflect on some of the many efforts that sustained Brisbane’s Catholic school communities.
She said school staff reached out to families that were in need of support, making phone calls just to check in and see how they were going, and they also made parents aware that if they were struggling financially that the school would support them during this time.
“At Unity College, Caloundra, and Aquinas College, Ashmore, hospitality teachers and students prepared drive-through meals that parents could pick up,” she said.
“To keep students engaged in reading, staff at St Columba’s Primary School, Wilston, prepared packs of library books in the car park that parents could drive through and collect.”
At some schools, translations were made available so families of migrant students and refugees would know what they needed to do. Miss Betts said, given the extraordinary challenges staff had faced supporting students as they learnt from home during Term 2, they deserved to be rewarded.
She said the BCE leadership team decided to extend an act of gratitude to all employees.
“We invited our schools and office teams to host a gratitude event/morning tea – on us – during Wellbeing Week in August 2020,” she said.
“It was our way of saying thank you.
“Our teachers and principals were absolutely outstanding, and the support staff did a fabulous job in supporting young people during that time – both in their education and supporting their wellbeing and helping them through what was a really difficult time.”
During this extraordinary time BCE also managed to build new schools, enrol students and recruit new staff – an achievement Miss Betts described as “fantastic”.
“Sophia College at Plainland and San
Damiano College at Yarrabilba are on track to welcome students from day one next year, in 2021,” she said.
“We even managed to do the blessing of the two sites in Term 4 – Bishop Ken Howell did them – and we also managed to do the blessing (by Archbishop Mark Coleridge) of St Ann’s Primary School that opened in January as a new school at Redbank Plains.”
Ms Betts said it was time for students and teachers to take a well-earned summer break, and return refreshed in 2021.
Its also a time to reflect on what the COVID-19 crisis has taught us.
“I think it is an opportunity to do some decluttering of life and hopefully we have learnt what really matters and what’s really important,” she said.
“Let’s try and capture that so we can show that, as a learning community, we’ve learnt something from this experience, and we can name it.
“The risk with a pandemic is that it will go on for at least another 12 months – we don’t know when the vaccine will be available (here in Australia).
“No one has a crystal ball for that one. We have to continue to take it one step at a time.”