You are a teacher, and a student in your already crowded class starts coughing at their desk so loudly that it’s causing a disruption. What do you do? Do you call the office and try to get the child sent home to get a COVID-19 test? Do you talk to the student about how they’re feeling, and/or take the time to call the students’ parents and ask them if they’ve noticed any other symptoms in their child? Do you immediately freak out internally and tell the office that you are going to self-isolate until you feel mentally prepared to come back to school? Or do you just do nothing, and carry on with your lesson as if nothing has happened?
These are questions that educators everywhere are having to consider, as there is no protocol or handbook for the terrain that we are navigating.
As it stands, we are now experiencing a significant rise in COVID-19 rates across Ontario. I have extremely complex feelings about teaching in a pandemic. Firstly, I love my students so much that my heart could burst, and I’m just happy that I can be here for them during this really tense time. But from schools that are back in session in buildings with terrible ventilation systems, to large class sizes, and no funding to hire more teachers, Ford has shown that his government will always put profits over our children.
While Ford announced on Friday that Ontario will be reverting back to Stage 2 in the hot spot cities of Toronto, Peel Region, and Ottawa, he was clear that our schools will still remain open. I do not understand how we have such tight limits on indoor gatherings and social bubbles, yet teachers and schools are to carry on as if we are, as Ford loves to say, still “open for business”.
I may not be a math teacher, but the numbers in the government’s recommendations for limited interactions amongst the general public and the current reality for the interactions experienced by education workers and students within schools do not match up. This is especially the case when the government’s cuts to education are the reason that we are still seeing larger than life class sizes amidst a public health crisis.
The government is failing us
Unfortunately, there are countless examples from the Toronto District School Board, to the Simcoe County District School Board, to the Limestone District School Board and beyond where teachers across the province have in person classes with well over 20 students – clearly against the 10 person limit for provincial indoor gatherings. An Education Assistant friend of mine also shared that the support staff at her school are forced to share PPE! This is an outrage.
Adding a few nurses to schools (as per another recent announcement) will be helpful, but it’s absolutely no substitute for capping all classes, providing PPE to staff and students, and finding new community spaces to hold school in lieu of continuing to have classes in rooms that were designed without windows!
As someone who is both trying to support our students while also being expected to teach them new content, I also find that the recently released guidelines from the Ministry of Education fall short of caring for our students’ wellbeing. For this academic year, the Ministry is giving teachers the option of waving final exams in our courses if we see fit, and we now have the option of having 100% of the student mark come from course work. While this shows that there has been at least some consideration of students, this still doesn’t solve many of the problems that myself and other teachers are finding, as we are all moving so slowly through the curriculum! Even with these new guidelines (that are optional), we still need to not only teach and assess each expectation, but also evaluate/test each expectation, and this is proving difficult.
Through wearing our masks and new face shields (which are mandatory at my school all day long!) we are all doing our best – literally sitting in our classes sweating all day – but our students just aren’t working at their normal pace, and we’re already so far behind in all of our courses. It is unfair and preposterous to expect our students to keep up with our previous years’ pace – whether there is a final exam or not.
So many of our students are anxious and on edge all day. How can we expect them to want to learn about English or any subject when their life, and the life of everyone around them, has been completely upended?! How is assigning our grade 12s the same work and assignments in 2020 as we did in 2019 reasonable?
Learning conditions under COVID
We’re busy every night revising our classes and making new assignments and content to adjust to this speed and pace and figure out where we can go given these circumstances.
Digital learning is an option for some students who are anxious at school, but keep in mind that not every family has access to more than one computer or fast internet. The rollout of digital learning in the TDSB has been disastrous as the board searches for funding for new teachers to take on the 78,000 learners who are opting for online learning. But many families just can’t afford to keep their kids home to do online learning, even though they’d like to, because childcare is so expensive and the government has not helped at all with these costs.
At school it is easy to see kids are having a hard time socially distancing. I understand this because I am also finding it difficult. I can’t get close to their computers to help or have conferences about their work at my desk. I have to still constantly remind myself to step back when I’m asked a formatting question or grammar question, as my first reaction is to get on their level, type on their computer, and sit beside them until they understand. And it makes teaching and learning much more difficult. Our bodies have a memory and we have to be in these spaces and go against our natural habits that are ingrained in us, and we slip up through no fault of our own. And our kids, through their foggy glasses and face shields, they also forget our new protocols because they want to move around – they want to play!
This year goes against everything I know to be pedagogically sound. Our classrooms have rows and individual desks. And because I’m also filming videos for our online learners too, I’ve been instructed that this year is about lectures as we really aren’t in a position to get up and move around. Group work, which is vital to creating well-rounded learners is also not possible.
Our kids now sit at their individual and isolated desks for over 6 hours each day. The Brazillian educator Paulo Freire called this the “banking” method of education, noting that this method can have a damaging impact on autonomy and critical thinking. In his seminal work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire cautions that education forces students to be passive when expected to sit and listen to the teacher for entire lessons, and that there are unseen power dynamics at play in this exchange. Students are positioned as empty vessels with no autonomy in their education or life, and the teacher is the intellectual with the power who deposits information into their brain. The banking method discourages students from critical thinking as it is based on memorization and repetition, and reaffirms that knowledge isn’t co-created, but is hierarchical and must be given to them by someone with more power. Freire explained that this style of education primes students to be complacent in systems of oppression, and this is the reality of most classrooms in 2020.
This teacher-centric model that we’re being forced into is totally against what I and many other progressive educators believe is good educational practice. In fact, I’ve spent my entire career creating meaningful lessons where students actively participate and experience knowledge together, but in a pandemic where we physically can’t move around and are in fact discouraged from interacting with each other, it has more so been about survival rather than innovation in the classroom, and this haunts me. We also still have to evaluate and assess each expectation or risk consequences from the Ministry – including getting our credit granting license suspended in the private system.
The whole experience is emotionally taxing, from seeing “Absent – Gone for COVID Test” beside a student’s name on our daily attendance lists, to witnessing several of my fellow teachers being absent while waiting for their COVID test results – it has been an intense time.
When we’re in class, we all panic when someone starts to cough, even though it is currently allergy season. And the students get so embarrassed and ashamed when they have to cough or sneeze, and apologize profusely, and it’s just one more thing they have to worry about.
And as much as my students have been incredible, I know that there are some students who don’t take this as seriously as the others. Afterschool I have seen students rip off their masks the second they step off the lot. Some of these students also don’t socially distance after school either, defeating all of our efforts we’ve made in the day. I have also recently learned that the bathroom is a hotspot as a few students have been taking off their mask to fix their makeup, or just to “take a break”. As frustrating as this can be, kids are just after all kids, we can’t expect the weight of the pandemic safety measures to be carried by them.
Invest in education
It is unbearable to press on like normal in 2020, and all teachers and staff are stressed out trying to appease expectations while also emotionally supporting our students through the uncertainty of these times. All education staff are working their butts off to keep schools clean and safe, and we need to bow to all support staff, custodians, and everyone involved like never before.
But at the end of the day this can’t just be about individuals working hard or soldiering through adverse conditions. Our government needs to invest in the future, and provide more funding for computers and the internet for families with kids that are having a hard time in school and would be better suited for online learning.
There needs to be more funding for teachers to ensure smaller class sizes across the province, especially to match the legal limits of indoor gatherings. All schools need properly ventilated spaces for our students, and the government must ensure that all education workers have proper PPE. And lastly, the Ministry needs to provide more support for teachers and release better guidelines around evaluation and expectations for student achievement so that we all have a better chance at emotionally and physically surviving while learning and teaching in a pandemic.
Did you like this article? Help us produce more like it by donating $1, $2, or $5. Donate