We’re back and it feels…

  • …like a weird batch of emotions being mixed up in my head everyday. 

I use the word “weird” here as an amalgam of thoughts in order to come to grips with a whole whack of feelings. For now, let’s discuss 4 of the unique states of mind which I have been experiencing. They can be captured by the acronym C.A.G.E – confusion, anger, grief, elation. 

Confusion 

When we said our goodbyes in late June, we went home not knowing what was to come. How could we, no one did? It was a true test of the resilience of our profession as we transitioned from our physical spaces and into the virtual ones. It was emergency distance learning 101 for us all. Nobody knew how long it would go on, or how the students would respond. I recall the incredible stress of having to convert an old table and chair into a workstation at my house, the physiotherapy that came afterwards from my less than ergonomic set-up, and the (a)synchronous instructional awkwardness.

SO, after completing the balance of the academic year online and 3+ weeks of virtual summer school, I was really ready to be back in a classroom. In fact, I was elated at the possibility because things were proceeding as normally as they could as numbers declined and even though everything was up in the air when it came to education. 

At least, our tentative assignments and schedules had been shared, there was more than an air of uncertainty that things were bound to change. Daily news reports, and social media posts had us all still holding our breath. What was school going to look like after “emergency distance learning”? What was the government’s plan? What were are school boards doing to be prepared for September?

Anger

There was no shortage of sound bites and stories to fill in the gaps, and for a fleeting moment in late July, it almost looked like the numbers were dropping enough as if the winds of possibility filled the air. Things began looking positive, yet it was still relatively quiet when it came to direction from our current government when it came to education except that they had experts working on it. Come mid-August, my bubble of hope burst with news of increasing numbers of cases. Any residual confusion had given way to anger and disappointment in this educator. 

When school board emails began coming again in mid-August, the uncertainty around COVID 19 in our schools left us scratching our heads, as we did back in March. Little did we know what was about to drop on us all when school boards began surveying families about their choices for virtual or in class learning? But, that’s a topic for another post. 

It was pretty easy to get angry although it didn’t help. Yelling at the TV, like Grampa Simpson, everytime a new daily increase of cases was announced or at how someone somewhere decided that a large social gathering was a good idea without taking precautions. Seeing newsers with the Minister of Education spinning government yarns about funding increases, which they had stripped, and safety of the students raised my ire too. No wonder I spent so many hours muttering to myself while cleaning the garage in August. “Good grief!”

Grief

I’d like this to be at the Charlie Brown level when he says, “Good Grief,” but it isn’t. One of the single most powerful emotions I have been battling with since March has been grieving the way that education is now divided into B.C. (before COVID-19) and C.E. (COVID-19 Era). I am sad for my students who missed out on perennial rights of passage such as grads, sports, extra-curriculars, and trips. I feel grief for the students who had to stay at home without contact with their friends other than through blue screens. I feel for the adults who struggled to support their children’s learning while juggling their own work. Acknowledging this feeling is my way of trying to move forward in a healthy way. I know there are many teachers who are feeling something similar.

Elation

After great reflection, I chose the classroom option to start this school year. Admittedly, this is a selfish choice, as I thrive in the classroom. My wife mentioned on several occasions that I needed to be back at school too. Although, I am not sure if that was for her sake or mine? Regardless of who benefited most by my return to the classroom, the fact is I was elated to be back, but it also came with a cost. 

I now go for weekly COVID 19 Tests now that my bubble has expanded. With a 96 year old and a spouse with asthma in our home, we are proceeding with great caution. I am wearing a mask and frequently sanitizing my home, trips anywhere are only out of necessity, we are co-ordinating our schedules to reduce interactions so my father in-law does not become at greater risk, and any semblance of a social life or gatherings with extended family outside our residence bubble are now only on the camera roll of my smartphone. Yet, I think it is worth it. 

A stronger feeling of unity amongst colleagues is happening. This turmoil has given rise to a new sense of telepresent professionalism(virtual staff/team meetings). Conversations are fewer, but more meaningful. Smiles are now made more expressive as they are shared behind our masks. All of these little things have made the return to school possible despite the heavy and shifting workload.

Prepping to teach this September has matched the level of confusion and effort of my very first years. It’s tough sledding right now and more changes are ahead as we have only been through a few weeks, but even though my return to the classroom this month has me staggering, I am encouraged and challenged, in a good way, to innovate and adapt.

My head is spinning most days as I grapple to sanitize, mask up, shield up, and emotionally ramp up to teach. Yet, I cannot help, but still find some happiness in all of this each day. And although you can’t see it through my mask, seeing students and staff in real life has become the biggest reason for the smile on my face each day at school despite the CAGE. 

Stay strong. Thanks for reading. 
Will

Note: 

I had the bulk of this post ready to share our first week back, but could not do it. Something was telling me to bank my initial thoughts for a couple of weeks. Maybe I wanted to take some time for the dust to settle in order to make sense of it all. Sadly, it’s still pretty dusty around here, and based on the daily streams of educators sharing their ups and downs via social media, our collective ability to sift through the mess to make sense out of it, and let the dust settle has not occured. Yet. 

Classrooms After Covid-19

ETFO’s position on in-person learning remains unchanged. The union firmly believes that the daily, in-person model of instruction and support best meets the educational, developmental and social needs of students, provides the best experience for support, and is the most equitable learning model for all students. ETFO’s expectation is that elementary virtual learning in any capacity, including through hybrid models of instruction, will end once the pandemic ends.

I write this blog in response to the Province of Quebec opening their public schools as of May 11th 2020. As the education of students is challenged with many layers of complexity, I will muse about what classrooms might look like when Ontario’s students return to classroom.

Managing the Spread of the Virus

In minimizing the spread of the virus, schools may be given the responsibility of monitoring students’ level of health. This could mean morning temperature checks, hourly hand washing routines, hand sanitizer stations, and the wearing of masks. Custodians would also be tasked with cleaning areas frequented my students such as hallways and washrooms. This would mean more custodians may need to be hired to keep up with increased hygiene demands.

Further, policy might have to be put in place to send students home who are experiencing signs of Illness. As a classroom teacher, I know that parents send their children to school with diarrhea, vomiting, and fever which is likely to spread infection to others. I am concerned about the occurrence of students’ 11 o’clock fever which results in parent dosing their feverish child with Tylenol at 7 am only to have the fever return when the medication wears off 4 hours later. In 2009, when the H1N1 virus hit, one of my grade 7 classes had 18 students sick with H1N1 after a birthday party. From my students, I contracted H1N1 and was fortunately put on antiviral medication, so I recovered within a few days.

In considering teachers already being tasked with many responsibilities and challenges, I suggest that the responsibility of monitoring students’ health be placed in the capable hands of trained medical professionals. This would mean that boards of education would have to hire health professionals such as practical nurses to monitor students’ health and deal with students first aid needs.

Hallways, Entry, Exit, Busing, Recess, Assemblies

In order to limit traffic and honour social distancing, schools may have to set zones, based on students’ age, to limit contact between grade level divisions. This might mean that students in Kindergarten, primary (grades 1, 2, 3), junior (grades 4, 5, 6), and intermediate (grades 6, 7, 8) will have limited access to different hallways and staircases in order to limit numbers of students interacting.

Further, limiting numbers of students interacting may mean staggered entries and dismissals with each grade division having its own entry and dismissal time.

The number of school buses would have to increase to ensure seating to accommodate social distancing for students riding to and from school (i.e. one child per seat).

Students would have to stay in their classrooms to eat lunch and they would also have staggered recess times to limit contact between students of different ages and the number of students outside for recess at the same time.

Assemblies would be cancelled until the chance of spreading the viral infection was limited. Physical Education classes might have to be limited in size of 15 students only and often held outside to limit the spread of the virus.

Classroom Configurations

Classrooms will have to be set up very differently than they are now as flexible seating and collaborative work will not measure up to the requirements of social distancing. This means that students will be sitting in rows 2 metres apart. Students will not be permitted to get out of their seats to talk to their peers or to wander around the classroom. Classrooms will be much like my grade 5 classroom with all students sitting in rows, doing work with classroom instruction on the board.

Younger students may also have to sit separately during carpet time in their marked spot (while teaching grade 2/3, I used tape to indicate where certain students had to sit).

Connected Collaborative Classrooms

In order to engage in classroom collaboration, students, grades 4 and up, will require computers to work to complete classroom assignments and work collaboratively with other students via online classroom applications.

Class Sizes and Staffing

The Province of Quebec indicated that they would limit class sizes to 15 students. This will present a problem for many boards of education as they simply do not have enough schools and classrooms to accommodate these much smaller class sizes. Further, Kindergarten classrooms usually have up to 30 students in each classroom. In accommodating smaller class sizes, students might have to have staggered use of their classroom with half the class coming to school in the morning and the other half coming to school in the afternoon. Or instead, school boards would have to locate twice the classrooms to accommodate all Kindergarten students.

With smaller class sizes, means hiring more teachers. With class size at about 25 students average per class there will have to be 1.1 more teachers for every two classes currently (25 X 2 = 50 /15 = 1.1). If you have been involved in staffing schools, you will know teacher allocations are usually about percentages as there is usually a teacher in a school with a percentage of a whole teaching job e.g. 0.4 = 40% of time and pay of a whole teacher.

In using the numbers for an elementary school, Kindergarten to grade 8, staffing numbers could change as follows for just classroom teachers not including planning time teachers (i.e. Music, Physical Education, Health, Art, Drama, Planning Time):

In this scenario, there would be a 42% increase in teachers needed to teach smaller classes Students

Current Staffing

Covid-19 Staffing

Primary Division

270

15

18

Junior/Intermediate Division

300

13.5

22

Total

600

28.5

40

In cutting class sizes to accommodate physical distancing, there could be an over 40% increase in teaching staff as demonstrated above.

Limiting People with Compromise Health

Further, the Province of Quebec is suggesting that teachers over 60 years or with compromised health challenges work remotely from home. Students with compromised health challenges would also be recommended to stay home thus having them continue their online learning.

Dealing with Mental Health

This is a challenging time for all people; students and educators would require more mental health supports available on site within schools. With the stress of social distancing and more structured changes in learning, many students may not be able to cope.

Violence in schools has already been well documented as a significant concern and with more stress in schools, students will have even more challenges in regulating their emotions. Schools will need mental health professionals, more teaching assistants, and more social workers to support these students who are already at risk.

The Bottom Line for People

In the end, with all this planning and adapting of the educational landscape, parents may choose to keep their children at home. As a parent, I know that children are great spreaders of infection. I have personally missed three Christmas celebrations as my young children got sick at the time and then passed the infection on to me. I believe that viruses and bacteria strengthen in young children only to hit their parents like a tsunami – I have pictures on me lying on the floor while my kids open up their presents! Fortunately my children are adults now.

Governments should be cautious in their advocacy for reopening schools as they put staff, students, and the school community at risk of getting sick or very sick, suffering life changing consequences. Be reminded the Infection Prevention and Control is a significant health and safety concern in all workplaces.

Wishing you, your family and friends best health,

Deb Weston

Resources & Recent News Articles

Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) technical guidance: Guidance for schools, workplaces & institutions World Health Organization

COVID-19 Emergency Preparedness and Response WASH and Infection Prevention and Control Measures in Schools Unicef

COVID-19 Guidance: Occupational Health and Safety and Infection Prevention & Control

COVID-19 in Quebec: Some businesses will reopen in May, but no return to ‘normal life,’ says premier

How other countries sent their children back to school amid COVID-19

How will schools enforce physical distancing Your COVID-19 questions answered

May opening of elementary schools, daycares ‘a necessary decision,’ says Quebec education minister

No plan to reopen B.C. schools yet, says education minister

What will Canadian schools look like after COVID-19? Here’s what could change

Class Size Matters: Then and Now

As I look back on my 1973/1974 grade 5 classroom of 29 students, there are significant differences in how we were taught.

Teacher Qualifications:

Our teacher did not have a university degree and only one year of teachers’ training. (I looked her up).

Today’s teachers must complete a 4 year university degree and two years of teachers’ training before they can become professional teachers.

Seating:

I recently returned to my former grade 5 classroom and knew exactly were I sat as we were in rows in alphabetical order. There was little or no collaboration with classmates and we were expected to sit quietly and work with little or no support from our teacher. In the 1970s, I did a lot of rote learning and paperwork – it was pretty boring. I sat and worked in the same spot for my entire grade 5 year.

Today, classrooms are dynamic with flexible seating and continual student collaboration. Now learning is more active through student inquiry and the use of technology. Collaboration within groups is a key learning skill on report cards.

Class Composition:

In 1973, we did not have any students with significant special education needs as those students were placed in contained classrooms. This was before the inclusion model was implemented. Any students who struggled were likely held back by failing a grade. (I was almost held back due to my undiagnosed learning disability). We also had students who were younger as they had “skipped” a grade.

Today, there is a wide range of student abilities in classrooms. I’ve taught classes with gifted students and students with significant learning deficits. This meant that I had to modify my teaching instruction to several grade levels higher or lower to meet these students’ needs. I once had a student functioning at a grade one level in a grade 7 classroom and was fortunate to have an educational assistant and special education teacher to support this student.

Educational Assistants:

In the 1970s, classrooms with students with significant special education needs had educational assistants/teaching assistants. I can only remember ever seeing teaching assistants in the special needs’ classrooms.  I recently spoke to a retired teacher who informed me that when the inclusion model was implemented into Ontario schools, the government promised teachers significant  support with an Educational Assistant in every classroom. That was not implemented as promised.

With today’s classroom composition, teachers need significant additional supports. A full time Educational Assistant (EA) would give teachers time to work with all students. In addition, when I’ve worked with Educational Assistants, my students have been much better behaved as there are two adults watching them work. Even when students are allocated funding for Educational Assistant support, schools often place EAs with other students who have no funding – as the EA is “assigned to the school, not the student”. This means the student with EA funding never gets their allocated support and the teacher must support this student instead. Teaching in classrooms with a few students with special education needs and little EA support is doable but currently many classrooms have up to a third or more of students with special education needs. This is unmanageable and disheartening when teachers cannot provide enough support to help all students. In this case, students who are capable but need a small amount of support never get the help they need.

Discipline:

When I went to school, students were expected to behave themselves in class. I personally was terrified to get into trouble at school as I would have received significant consequences. I remember a few students receiving “the belt” by the principal. In order the get this consequence, the principal had to document and justify the consequence.

Today, discipline varies by administrator, school, and school board. Students who misbehave can go to a behaviour teaching assistants’ room (if this is available) or to the office. The challenge is that students with behaviour needs really require intervention supports to improve their overall behaviour and academic outcome at school. I personally know of a situation where a student, who struggled academically and with behaviour needs, got the mental health and behaviour support programs they needed and is now thriving academically and with behaviour under control. (This support happened as the teacher did a work refusal due to extreme student behaviour concerns which precipitated extra support for this student).

So why can’t we implement programs like this for all students who need behaviour supports? Funding – recent government cutbacks have meant that these safeguards of mental health and behaviour supports have disappeared leaving only the most challenging students getting this critical intervention.

The Bottom Line:

Class size matters more today than it ever has as classroom compositions are highly differentiated with students with many needs. Further, with fluid and dynamic instruction, students do not sit in orderly rows not leaving their seats. As a teacher, I prefer teaching this way as it is more organic and helps students develop critical collaborative skills they will one day use in the world of work.

The bottom line is that teachers need more support in their classroom with not more, but less students. Schools need more Educational Assistants and Special Education Teachers to support students with significant academic and behaviour needs. Boards of education need more programs and qualified adults to address mental health and behaviour needs with students. Without these supports and interventions, students’ behaviour and mental health needs will only be compounded and student outcomes will flounder.

With this blog, I advocate for all students with special education and behaviour needs to get the support they require to be successful in their education … because without these student outcomes will be grim.

Collaboratively Yours,

Deb Weston, PhD