Back-to-School Thoughts from a Teacher/Parent

A week ago, as you know, it became official in Ontario: we’re going back to school this September. In the days since then, there has been an outcry from parents, staff, unions etc. who feel that the Covid-19 measures announced by the government do not go far enough to keep students and staff safe.

I have had many conversations about this with other parents and teachers, looking at whether to register their children for school. Families who have the logistical option to keep their kids home from school are feeling the weight of this stressful, un-measurable, multi-faceted decision. How can anyone know what’s best anymore, when uncertainty is the new normal?

google_classroom_with_masks

Several friends have asked my perspective as a teacher-parent. Naturally, I have concerns and mixed feelings (which puts me right on trend in 2020).

About the Back-to-School Plan…

If you are at all connected with elementary schools in Ontario, you’ve probably already read/heard what are the main objections to the plan.

  1. It does not address crowding. Class sizes have not changed.
  2. Primary students will be “encouraged” but not required to wear masks.
  3. Nothing in the plan addresses room ventilation.

Regarding #1, even the 1-metre distancing is not possible in many classrooms with class sizes being what they are. I wonder if the government assumes that enough parents will decide to keep their kids at home that the officially unchanged class sizes will just… work themselves out? As my brother-in-law put it, that’s kind of a “weaselly” way of doing things. Make things just unsafe enough that half of kids stay home. PROBLEM SOLVED!

About #2, I think it makes sense for this to be up to the parents, knowing their kids’ capacities. Many kids – even little ones – have learned a lot about hand-washing and mask-wearing over the past months… But I think there are still many for whom a mask would encourage face-touching and become more of a vehicle for germ-spreading. The mask would come off, it would go on the floor, it would get put on backwards, it would get chewed on, it would be used to wipe snot… I’m sure you can picture it. The government plan follows the Sick Kids recommendations, weighing the liabilities of masks against the Covid-19 statistics for young children.

In terms of #3… I have no idea how you fix the ventilation problem in a month. Some classrooms have plenty of ventilation, and some have not a single openable window (like my portable, for example).

Personally, my other big concern as a teacher is the continuation of Distance Learning. In our school board, all teachers are asked to return full-time. The Board has promised distance learning surpassing what we delivered in the spring… but a week after the announcement, I have heard nothing about how that’s going to work. Who is going to take care of that, if all teachers are in school all day? (Is it perhaps another weaselly situation, where they’re assuming enough teachers will have circumstances prohibiting them from teaching at school, and they’ll take care of online learning from home?)

{While we’re here, can we all just feel gratitude for a moment that we’re not in Georgia, where students get suspended for sharing photos of the crowded, mask-less hallways. In a region where the viral load is huge. Send those kids some healthy vibes because they’re going to need them.}

So… what to do?

I can tell you what I’m going to do: go teach, and send my kids to school. We don’t have any prohibitive issues. My kids are all-star hand-washers, and I’ll be sending them both with masks (even though AB will be in Grade 3). We will hope for the best.

What would I do if I had the option to keep the kids home? That is a much tougher decision. I would probably use this Decision-Making Tool from the CDC that I just came across… But I really don’t know. In any case, I fully respect any parent’s decision to keep kids home or send them to school, because only families themselves know what is manageable and appropriate for them.

I should admit that this “rarin’ to go” attitude is not me being particularly brave or stoic about returning to school… It’s because a big part of me really wants to go. Community transmission in our area is quite low right now, and I want to at least try this. Maybe it will backfire and we’ll all be back to distance learning by October or sooner (I hope not!). But I can tell you that my first, gut reaction to the government announcement was a tentative but deep-down “yay!

Because I have really missed the kids a lot. I was not looking forward to more distance teaching. It’s not my style and not my forte – particularly with the subjects I teach, which are very interactive. Furthermore, online learning is not what school is about.

To tell the truth, I have been hoping for this since the team at Sick Kids first made their recommendation for the return to school back in June. At that point, I was looking forward, much more fervently than usual, to finishing up the school year – because it was online.

Educators are accustomed to the emotional arc of a normal school year, especially the fun and stress and chaos leading up to the final sigh of relief/wistfulness. I’ve had a few school years I was very happy to see the end of, for various reasons. But even when a particular group of young humans has been driving me bananas for ten months, I still get throat-lumpy when bidding farewell to the individuals. (I get teary at every single Grade 6 Grad event.) Often, the toughest customers are the ones from whom we learn the most. And you just want them to go on to the next thing and be okay.

This past year, the emotional arc was completely effed-up. (I know you feel me, Ontario educators.) Work-to-rule started back in the fall, so already we were missing many of the fun things we’d normally do. As we went on rotating strikes, picketing and having deep conversations about teaching, certain things became extra-clear.

  • The kids are why we teach.
  • We want to be in the classroom with them.
  • We know what makes education work.
  • We give a damn. A lot of damns, actually.

So when March break turned into Distance/Crisis Learning Forever, all the stuff we’d been fighting for was shaken up and dumped out in a big pile, from which we had to salvage the bits we could use online. Suddenly we were ALL new to teaching, in a way.

And here’s what we know even more deeply now:

  • The kids are why we teach.
  • We want to be in the classroom with them.
  • We know what makes education work.
  • We give a damn, because we want education to be great. We want it to make a difference to kids and their families. We want each school community to be enriched by what happens in the building.

And when we’re not in the building… we still want all that. But wow. It’s hard to feel like you’re doing a good job when all the usual things you do to engage children are not available to you.

Here’s what distance teaching was like, from my POV.

The teachers I’ve talked to really wanted to make online learning fun and engaging for the kids this past spring – and also not too difficult, so that it wasn’t a burden for parents, most of whom were already dealing with too much. But this is a tough expectation to meet (especially if you’re a parent, parenting at home while teaching).

I know a lot of us felt discouraged by the drawbacks of online teaching. It exacerbates issues of equity – in terms of who has access to internet/devices, but also in terms of who can actually do work online. The kids who faithfully did their online assignments tended to be the ones who already function well in school – and many of those who need the most help did not participate.

And emotionally, over Google Classroom, you just don’t really get those moments of excitement when true engagement and authentic learning take place. The real smiles, the real light-bulb moments. The times when your students make you laugh out loud (and vice-versa). Moments of communication that happen just through eye contact. The things they say that sock you in the soul with their insight.

To that point, I did really enjoy reading what students submitted to me, written without peer influence. Some of their words, especially responses to music, were pretty profound.

And when we were able to do Google Meets and see their faces live – many of them lounging around in bed, eating random snacks – it helped. But it also made me miss them more.

Every single one of them, including the ones who never participated in online learning, is going through this world-changing time. They have no choice but to manage, however they can. Even those living relatively easy lives have been dealing with upheaval we we would never want for them.

And their faces, in their individual screen-boxes, were so cute. Watching them, it seemed like a faraway dream that we used to just be together in class every day. It’s good to be reminded of what a great privilege it is to work with children regularly, to have constant access to their young perspectives and energy. Tiring and stressful though it can be, it’s also a gift.

The end of this crumpled-up arc, though, was mostly sad. Turbulent and scattered and bereft and sad, with no proper closure. Especially saying goodbye to the kids who won’t be back – having been cheated of the last months with them… it just sucked. We couldn’t even give the graduating Grade 6s congratulatory handshakes. We just wished, even more deeply, for them to go on to the next thing and be okay. Which is a taller order than it used to be.

So yes, I’m looking forward to going back – even though it won’t be the same. I don’t know how I’ll teach French all mask-muffled… I will miss using musical instruments with the kids!!… Distancing will be NOT EASY. But I am eager to see the kids – however many of them can manage to come.

I never thought I’d say this, but I am going to quote Premier Doug Ford: “To all the mums and dads out there – thank you for being the true superheroes in the fight against Covid-19.”

On that note, it has to be said, even though this post is already way too long: dealing with the provincial government has been one of the most surreal aspects of this super-effing-weird year. I have not downplayed how I feel about Premier Doug Ford or Education Minister Stephen Lecce.* Negotiations between education unions and the government looked intractable until the pandemic hit. Then, with all bets off, both parties conceded things that had previously been unthinkable. Because when there’s a crisis, you do what you must.

*[Remember that time, back in June, when Lecce was all, “You want your kids’ stuff back? Consider it done!” And educators were like, “Yeah, BY US – school boards are way ahead of you.” Ack, BARF. I was annoyed by how good we made him look.]

I can admit, although I disagree with Doug Ford’s politics in almost every way, I am one of many who have been surprised – in a good way – by his managing of the pandemic. I have appreciated his caution, and his humility in always following the recommendations of health professionals. I enjoyed that time that a few people got protest-y at Queens Park about curtailing freedoms, and he just shut them down (reassuringly different from Trump’s every move).

I’m hoping that Covid-19 has taught Ford a few things about the value of Public Health, public schooling, and all the other public services people depend on, especially when there’s a crisis. And it looks like the people of Ontario are still teaching him things – like how we still notice when he’s cutting corners in a crisis. BRAVO to everyone holding this government accountable.

During the June 30th announcement, I can’t deny that I enjoyed these words:

  • “I also want to thank our teachers. […] I can tell you my friends, our teachers in Ontario, they’re top-notch. At the start of this pandemic, they adapted; they did everything they could to keep their students learning, and I know it wasn’t easy. So thank you again to all our dedicated teachers.”
  • “I’m a big fan of the teachers,” {really???} “they’ve done an incredible job, they really pulled through when it came to online learning, and I just want to say I’m grateful for all the teachers out there. […] We really really need them.”

Damn skippy. Who could have guessed, back in January, that the coronavirus would be what finally forced Doug Ford to speak respectfully about educators.

***

Update: August 17th, 2020

In case we were wondering how sincere the respectful talk was, we can rest assured that the Ontario government has actually, in its collective heart, not changed its outlook on teachers whatsoever.

From the Globe and Mail this morning, in an article about the Ministry of Education rejecting Toronto DSB’s ideas for how to make class sizes smaller:

“In a memo to the TDSB, the ministry notes that plans for a shortened school day included 48 daily minutes of preparation time for teachers. Caitlin Clark, a ministry spokesperson, told The Globe and Mail on Sunday that prep time was among the issues teacher unions ‘have refused to discuss.’

‘This has forced boards to make significant adaptations, which in many cases does not serve to maximize learning experience, health and safety, and well-being of students,’ she said, asking teacher unions to ‘be reasonable amid a global pandemic, so our kids can maximize learning in a safe classroom.'”

As soon as a government official says teachers should “be reasonable” by giving up planning time to save them money, it is clear that respect is not part of the relationship whatsoever.

Anyone who has worked in a classroom knows that the time spent with the kids is performance time. Planning time is everything else teachers need to do: research, planning lessons, creating documents, marking student work, reviewing curriculum, learning how to implement the ever-morphing Ministry expectations, etc. etc. That is why teachers spend so much time outside school hours working. Personally, I have never gone back to full-time teaching since having children, because the hours and energy output would be too much. I would end up doing a crappy job both as a teacher and a parent. Is that what we’re aiming for? Lots more burnt-out educators?

Seems like the government believes a pandemic is a good time to cut down on the number of minutes a teacher has to plan for safe, effective teaching.

You really, really need us? Then be reasonable.

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4 Comments

  1. It was wonderful to read about a months-long situation you’ve been in that we haven’t had the time to talk about — at all, really. Nothing surprised me, but just reading your real emotions and responses so eloquently expressed was a treat. Now we just need to know more about the parenting part while you were teaching, and your kids’ responses to the distance learning that they were on the other end of! Thank you!

    1. We could chat about this sometime! But I will say that I consider myself very lucky in how the kids managed their distance learning. They did not need nearly as much guidance/reminding/help as I expected. <3

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