School secretaries source of calm in chaotic pandemic year

Secretaries make sure a school runs smoothly, a skill especially needed in a year as unpredictable as this one.

Secretaries first face at schools, quelling parent fears and answering COVID questions

Secretaries, like Fran Machado, make sure a school runs smoothly, a skill especially needed in a year as unpredictable as this one. 'I’m doing everything I can on a daily basis to protect myself and those around me and I just have put some faith in the fact that others will do the same thing.' (Submitted by Fran Machado)

Fran Machado is afraid of catching COVID-19 — she would be lying if she told you otherwise.

Her risk is real: she's about to be surrounded by hundreds of students. But she's had to stop feeling anxious.

"I have to help keep the calm," said the elementary school secretary. "Many people will say the mood in the front office sets the mood for the school."

Machado is the first face students see when they step into St. Mary Catholic Elementary School in Brampton, her desk now set up behind a plexiglass shield.

As head secretary, she's been busy answering calls from apprehensive parents, still unsure whether to send their kids to school or not and asking her questions she can't possibly answer.

"I can only control my own response. I can't control a parent's anxieties or their anger at particular situations," she said.

"There's no question everybody wishes we had more time. Everybody wishes we did not have to deal with this."

Dealing with impatient parents

Many secretaries, like Machado, already serve as de facto school nurses. If a student gets sick this year and starts showing symptoms, Machado and her principal will take the lead.

She'll gear up in full PPE and help move them into the isolation room they've set up in the office. She'll be able to monitor them through a window while coordinating parent pickup.

They're the backbone of many schools. The first friendly face students, parents and teachers see. The conduit between teachers and parents. Haydn Watters spoke to secretaries about their hopes and fears ahead of this unpredictable school year. 4:44

"It is a little daunting from the perspective that unfortunately there is still a lot that is unknown about this virus."

Fellow secretary Laurie Anne McMinn isn't too scared herself. She, too, is tucked away behind plexiglass at Bradford District High School, northwest of Newmarket, Ont. She worries instead about the teachers and students.

McMinn has only been back a few days but hasn't left work on time yet. She's been swamped dealing with concerned parents. Some are still switching their kids between in-person class and online, and vice versa.

Bradford District High School secretary Laurie Anne McMinn isn't too worried about getting sick. 'I feel comfortable in my position because I am in an office. I have my plexiglass. I have my mask. I have my phone.' (Submitted by Laurie Anne McMinn)

"It's up, it's down, nobody really knows," she said. "They don't even know what's going on."

They are also asking her how many cases have to be in the school before it gets shut down. She's been referring them to the health unit as she said it won't be the school's call. With all the unknowns, she's hoping parents can be patient.

"I want everybody to be kind, everybody deserves kindness."

'Start your day with a smile'

Jo-Anne White was equally anxious about her return to her job as secretary at North Trenton Public School, west of Belleville, Ont.

School started there last week and the first few days have gone surprisingly smooth.

"The children are excited to be back and it's very happy," she said. "Even the new JKs ... seeing them with their little masks on and they're happy. You can see the sparkle in their eyes."

Jo-Anne White is feeling comforted to have kids back at North Trenton Public School, near Belleville. 'It’s been a long March Break.' (Submitted by Jo-Anne White)

Before school started, White had lots of questions about how it would work and what it might look like. She said finally having kids back in class feels comforting.

Machado knows there's bound to be mistakes ahead. She's trying her best to stay positive and not "be a grouch," doing everything she can to make school safe for students. She feels supported by her school board.

"We have to be able to take that deep breath and recognize there are elements outside of our control," she said. "Start your day with a smile because if you don't start your day with a smile, you're certainly not finishing with one."

About the Author

Haydn Watters is a roving reporter for Ontario, primarily serving the province's local radio shows. He has worked for CBC News and CBC Radio in Halifax, Yellowknife, Ottawa and Toronto, with stints at the politics bureau and the entertainment unit. He also ran an experimental one-person pop-up bureau for the CBC in Barrie, Ont.


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