This is how teachers across Canada feel about reopening schools
TORONTO -- Daniel Fernandez is struggling to prepare his lessons in Canadian world studies and English as a second language for his high school students in September. The Ottawa-based teacher still doesn’t know how his classes will be organized when they resume in-person, as is currently expected in Ontario, in the fall.
“They’re [the Ottawa Ottawa-Carleton District School Board] suggesting two days, and then one day of cleaning, and then two days for the other half of the school,” Fernandez told CTVNews.ca during a telephone interview in early July. “It’s not going to be beneficial for students.”
For Kirsten Diachidos, who teaches art and science to Grade 7 and 8 students in Laval, Que., her greatest concern about returning to the classroom is contracting COVID-19 and spreading it to her family. She has a daughter with asthma and a fiancé with severe lung problems so she is understandably worried for their health.
“The fear is me going back into the schools surrounded by kids without a solid plan and then coming home… It’s scary. It’s nerve racking,” she revealed to CTVNews.ca during a telephone interview earlier this month.
These are just a couple of examples of the countless anxieties, frustrations, and fears teachers across Canada expressed to CTVNews.ca after they were asked to share their biggest concerns about the upcoming school year.
While many educators welcomed the prospect of a return to the classroom, they were also united in their desire for it to be done in a safe and organized way.
In fact, the overwhelming majority of teachers’ anxieties appeared to stem from not knowing what to expect with the word “uncertainty” popping up in nearly every response.
“Teachers are planners,” Diachidos explained. “It’s very, very difficult to prepare for something when there’s no solid plan, or plan B, or plan C.”
With September fast approaching, here is how some teachers are feeling about going back to school.
While Diachidos was fearful for her family members who are at higher risk of complications from the virus, Nicole Lloyd has those similar concerns for herself.
The Calgary physical education teacher for grades six to nine has been cancer-free for only a year and a half.
“My immune system… it’s better for sure, but it’s kind of in the back of your mind that you could get it,” she said during a telephone interview in early July. “I take all the precautions I can.”
Fernandez said he’s immunocompromised too, and will be at a greater risk when he returns to the classroom. He’s also wondering what will happen if he does fall ill from the virus and can’t teach for an extended period of time.
“So I go off for two weeks, and I guess all of my students would have to self-quarantine for two weeks as well, so that's a large population,” he said. “And if I’m actually symptomatic and I’m getting sick, am I responsible for still putting out curriculum?”
In terms of prevention, a number of teachers said they were concerned about contracting coronavirus because they didn’t know how much, if any, personal protective equipment and sanitation supplies would be provided to them when they returned to school.
Many of them said they already buy a lot of their own school supplies out of pocket, including hygiene products, such as soap and tissues.
“A lot of us are afraid to admit how scared we really are,” Diachidos said. “We’re supposed to put on a brave face and make them [students] feel safe. But in kind of our own moments, when we're talking amongst ourselves, the truth is, yeah, it’s scary getting out there.”
In addition to worries about their own safety and that of their families, several educators shared their apprehensions about preparing lessons for the upcoming school year when they don’t know what the structure of their classes will be.
Provincial governments and school boards across the country are still in the process of developing guidelines on how schools should reopen, with some considering a hybrid system where half the students attend for part of the week and the other half for the other, or a one week on and one week off system, or a blend of in-person and online learning.
Diana Wang-Martin, a high school teacher in Mississauga, Ont., said she was particularly concerned about the possibility of having to teach in class and online in the fall.
“How will it be possible for teachers to teach a cohort of students in class while also teaching and providing support to the other cohort of students that are at home at the same time? This amounts to two full-time jobs that need to be done by two teachers, not one,” she said in an email to CTVNews.ca.
For the in-person classes, Lloyd said her school board in Calgary is debating implementing a system where smaller cohorts of approximately 15 students spend the entire day in one classroom and teachers will travel between the rooms.
For teachers who rely on shared supplies and instruments, they're unsure as to how they're supposed to shuttle those items between classes or even if students will be allowed to use that equipment at all.
Lloyd, a phys-ed teacher, understands the importance of physical activity in improving mental health and said she worries about the quality of gym classes and extracurricular activities if students aren’t allowed to exercise the same way anymore.
“If we can’t get back to some level of normalcy and kids can’t get active again, and we stay focused on the core subjects, I think we're going to be losing some kids,” she said.
Lloyd also pointed to how the social dynamics will change for students who are forced to spend their school day with a smaller group of peers, which may not include their friends. She said those friendships are important for children’s well-being and she’s concerned they will be more likely to want to stay home if they can’t see their friends at school.
“You don't have one of your best friends with you, and you're in that same space all day, and we're socially isolating you at lunch hour to keep you in your cohort, I understand why you would do it for safety, but some kids are not going to thrive in that,” she said.
It’s not just students’ mental health teachers are concerned about either, they’re also cognizant of their own.
Bryan Andrews, a high school science teacher in Calgary, said he found the transition to online learning during the school closures particularly difficult because of the separation he felt from his students. He said their online interactions were no substitute for the connection they would normally have in the classroom.
“The isolation took an emotional toll,” he said. “I learned about myself, how important physical proximity means to me when it comes to people. A computer screen is no alternative to being in the same room.”
On top of the disconnection with their students, teachers said they feared they would experience faster rates of burnout if they’re expected to juggle in-person teaching and online classes, while also preventing students and themselves from contracting the virus in the fall.
“Now you want us to do both. Teach in person at school and manage online and have our own families and have our own kids and commute and make sure we don’t get sick,” Diachidos said. “I'm pretty sure the rate of burnout is going to hit in November.”
Even though educators were anxious about their own safety and mental health, the majority were mostly concerned about their students’ welfare and education in adapting to a new reality.
Several teachers said they were worried their students’ education would suffer as a result of the new class structures and schedules.
Fernandez said it may be difficult for students who fell behind during the remote learning period in the spring to catch up in the fall, particularly in subjects with more rigid curriculums, such as math.
With new teachers and less time in class, he expressed concern they may not be able to receive the additional assistance they might need to catch up.
At his own school, Fernandez said they have a lot of immigrant families who depend on older students to look after their younger siblings when their parents are working. He said if the siblings are on the same weekly cohort schedule, that may be helpful for the parents, but it may be more difficult for the older student to keep up with their studies. If they’re on opposite schedules, the older student may have to stay home anyway to care for younger siblings.
For younger grades, Liz Corriveau, a kindergarten teacher in Orangeville, Ont., said there is the additional worry that teachers will spend more time policing students’ adherence to public health guidelines than actually educating.
“Kindergarten students have no idea how to maintain a safe social distance. They hug each other, they hold hands, they sit close to each other on the carpet or at a table. No matter how many times you remind them, they will forget. It’s in their nature,” she said in an email to CTVNews.ca in early July. “Will I be policing more than teaching?”
A SAFE RETURN
Despite their apprehensions, many teachers said they were eager to return to school in the fall and reconnect with their students, they just want to do so with a safe and responsible plan in place.
“We’re human, you know, we're not superheroes here,” Diachidos said. “We’re doing the very best we can to balance, but at the same token, there's only so much one person can do.”
Fernandez added that he hopes politicians, administrators, and parents will be understanding and work together when school restarts.
“Whatever system it is, I just hope that everybody is patient and calm,” he said. “It will have been half a year at this point, people are going to be more stressed and so we’ll have to actively work harder to be more patient with each other.”