How the new school years was going to look has been anybody’s guess for some time. Now we’re a week out from welcoming students back into schools, and the picture that is emerging is not a pretty one.
They crunched the final numbers yesterday and the axes started to fall. My school had fifty teachers, and it is now down to thirty-nine. We lost eleven classes worth of kids (just over 20%) and so we lost eleven teachers. Those teachers were declared “excess to school”. Most will be re-assigned to online teaching, as numbers require; the rest will be ‘furloughed’ until there are enough students to warrant calling them back.
The re-assigned teachers were not selected for online teaching because they expressed a preference or showed an aptitude. They were selected because they were the lowest on the seniority list. There was no mechanism for any other teacher to step in and say, “Actually, I’d prefer to teach online, can I go instead?” These teachers didn’t choose this.
I know these teachers, personally and professionally. They’ll work themselves into the ground in order to do an extraordinary job for the kids assigned to them. It’s just so unnecessary for them to have to.
Full-sized classes next to empty classrooms
For the teachers and students who will be doing school in person, there is now a lot of extra space in the school. To be precise, eleven classrooms have now been freed up.
This does not mean more space for smaller classes, though you’d be forgiven for thinking it might.
Those eleven classrooms will be empty when school starts, and the classes that remain will each have about twenty-five students in them.
I’ll say that again: twenty-five students and a teacher all together in one classroom, with eleven classrooms standing empty in the school, while excessed teachers wait to be called back from their lay-off.
One meter’s distance is “safe enough”
We have already compromised on the “two meters apart” rule that has been so universal since this pandemic began. That happened early on; no one even attempted to make that possible in the back-to-school plan. Apparently schools are the exception to that rule, maybe because students are known for being very attentive to hygiene.
That in itself is confusing. Is the two meter rule so excessively cautious that we can easily halve it with no consequences to safety, or was it supported by science? If two meters is what is supported by science, why is one meter okay? Suddenly, because the funding model requires it, someone waves a hand and one meter is fine? It’s a clear contradiction. Two meters is a safe distance for everyone except large concentrations of children. Groups of more than fifteen people were not sanctioned until very late phases of re-opening, but twenty-five is fine for schools while we wait for a second wave.
Even with the lower standard, though, there is no way I can distribute twenty-five desks in my room so that the students will a) remain one meter apart AND b) be able to see the board or the projector screen. I just about managed it with the nineteen desks that were in my classroom when I arrived last week. Not sure how I’m going to add six more.
So even the reduced safety standard is not achievable with the numbers as they are. Students will not be able to maintain any kind of distance in class.
Health and Safety Protocols
The good news is that we received robust health and safety training. We have been walked through all of the enhanced safety protocols, such as walking single file in the hall, and limiting how many students can be in the bathroom at one time, rotating recess so only one grade is outside at a time, and requiring students to stay with their own class in their own zone of the schoolyard. We know what PPE is required and how to wear it. We even received WHMIS training in hazardous substances because we’ll be doling out the hand sanitizer. We will drill the students in these procedures, and insist that they be followed at all times.
Anyone who tried to homeschool in the spring can attest that students don’t always do what you want them to do. Even if we enforce procedures religiously, there will be twenty-five kids in each classroom. Twenty-five energetic, smelly, sociable, mischievous, fidgety, germy kids. In a space the size of a Hasty Market, where the capacity is limited to ten people at a time.
The ‘enhanced’ safety measures can only do so much.
Teachers’ concerns dismissed from the start
The safety measures that teachers – and their unions – are asking for are only the measures that are already in place everywhere else. No special treatment required; we’re only asking that teachers and students be protected to the same standards as customers in, say, an LCBO.
Nevertheless, the messaging from the Minister of Education and Premier Ford has been consistently dismissive and disdainful. Teachers are complaining because they don’t want to do the hard work. Unions are being willfully obstructionist and causing problems on purpose. The government – so goes the rhetoric – has been successfully working in good faith with groups all across the province, so if the Teachers’ Federations can’t play nice then obviously the problem is not the government. Of course the teachers want more, they always do, but they’re over-reacting. They’re being unrealistic in their demands and don’t have a good grasp of the situation. It’ll be fine, they’ll see. We’re leading the nation in our back-to-school plan. What more do the teachers want?
In a word, gaslighting. I’m a woman in a traditionally female profession. I am more than familiar with the phenomenon. It is demoralizing every time.
First day of school
I cannot wait to meet my students. Being able to see their faces and respond to their curiosity and questions is central to my teaching, so teaching online to blank screens was tough. I am thrilled to be going into the classroom once again, even with all these challenges, and I have big plans.
All my plans depend on the kids feeling safe and supported. That is my first job, and my most important one. I am the one who sets the tone and determines the dynamic in the classroom. Doing so calls for an intense investment of emotional energy and labour, especially in the early days of a school year. At this point in the year, I would usually be setting up my classroom, sharing ideas with colleagues, getting excited, and generally building up my store of energy and positivity to be ready to welcome the kids on the first day.
Instead, I am reeling from the loss of valued colleagues, and witnessing their hurt and their worry. I am grieving that the students’ experience in school next week will fall far short of what I would like to offer them, both in terms of energy and of safety. I am weary from the knowledge that we have everything we would need to make them safer – enough space, and enough qualified teachers – and we’ve just chosen not to.