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In A Teacher's Shoes

In the novel we all had to read in grade 10, To Kill A Mockingbird, Scout commented: “Atticus said you never really knew a man until you stood in his shoes and walked around in them.”

An elementary teacher e-mailed me yesterday and wrote:

“The pedagogy and support that will be needed for children this upcoming year is going to have to be extremely well thought out for keeping children safe and supported. I wish there was time to do more professional development/planning before school started. There is so much to do. I want my children safe and my families supported. I care about them so much.”

I called her as I know her to be an outstanding teacher and what stuck with me was that she had spent 16 hours on the weekend planning and, three days in to having her class, already felt “exhausted”. She also said I am “scared for my health and my family’s health.” She continued: “I do not feel we are getting enough support and I am even considering taking a year’s leave. I am heart broken!”

She is not alone as I hear the same from so many teachers and we all need to be concerned. How did we get here and what are some of the things we can do about it?

How Did We Get Here?

Top Down Planning

The first blow delivered to the teachers was the way the planning was done. Teachers arrived on September 8th to a set of guidelines and schedules into which they had had no input. They were given only two days to learn a new set of protocols and in many cases a completely new schedule which required a fundamental change in teaching strategies. They knew that much of what was being laid on them was a result of last-minute changes involving cohorts and remote learning options. They quickly understood that this plan was fundamentally about contact tracing and not about learning. Because the Ministry was so tied to a particular start date there was no time for input at the local school level by teachers who were on the front line carrying out the plan. Hence, we ended up with some of the following scenarios:

A teacher teaching Philosophy 12 for five hours a day to the same class for 22 straight days. Is it any wonder that after the first day he felt exhausted? We do not even try to do that at the university level with more mature students.

A teacher having to keep 29 grade 8 students (age 13) engaged in a French class for 2 hours and 40 minutes each afternoon remembering they must not leave their desks. I once ran a satellite school with 320 grade eights. It was known as hormone heaven! You cannot expect these students to be focused for that length of time let alone absorb French in a meaningful way.

A grade 7 French Immersion teacher who started with 17 students only to learn the next teaching day she would have 28 students because the other class was collapsed and the teacher released. This after having been assured by one of the Minister’s garbled messages that if students choose remote learning the school would still be funded.

Walk around in these teachers’ shoes. Wouldn’t you be exhausted by the daily effort to keep kids on track combined with the planning that has to be done each evening? And these people have only been teaching for 2 days!

Rule Changes and the Precautionary Principle

Teachers are frustrated and baffled by the puzzling changes to the guidelines issued by the PHO and the Ministers messaging around those changes. Consider the following:

Distancing. We are all familiar with this change. We had it drilled into us that two metres was essential to protect oneself from the droplets. However, it seems when the authorities realized much more creative and expensive options would be required in schools, the rule for distancing was changed to one metre. But, that change would only apply to schools!

Then the smoke from the USA hit and there is an overnight change to the daily health check list. The following 10 symptoms no longer applied: sore throat, runny nose/stuffy nose, headache, fatigue, loss of appetite, muscle aches, conjunctivitis, dizziness, confusion, abdominal pain, and skin rash or discoloration of fingers or toes. Quite a list! When asked about this at Monday’s briefing the PHO suggested nothing at all had really changed. This left teachers scratching their heads.

To complicate the messaging even more, the windows issue arose. Teachers were initially told they should teach with their windows open to improve air circulation in the classroom thereby making Covid transmission more difficult. Now the smoke had arrived, and they are told to close the windows and keep the children in the classroom all day.

When asked about the safety of this, the Minister on the Mike Smyth show stated that they are perfectly safe because of “the layers of protection”. Again the teachers are baffled because, of the four layers indicated by WorksafeBC, number 1: physical distancing has been downgraded; number 2: physical barriers are non-existent; number 3: cleaning protocols vary from place to place; and the fourth: the use of masks is optional for students in the classroom. Is there any wonder why the teachers are baffled? Mr. Minister, your so called “layers of protection” do not exist and I am locked in a classroom with 28 students for the whole day. Yes, walk around in my shoes and feel the fear and stress!

Teachers are well aware that a major finding of the official inquiry into the SARS pandemic was that in future similar circumstances the Precautionary Principal should be applied. This Principle simply says when extensive scientific knowledge on a matter is lacking, we should exercise caution, pause and review before leaping into action on new processes. Covid 19 in schools is just such a circumstance yet the teachers see caution being thrown to the wind and their health being put at risk.

They wonder even further when terminology is changed and applied only to their situation. For example, long term care homes, meat packing plants and other workplaces can have ‘outbreaks’ of the virus but schools can only have ‘cases’ or ‘clusters’.

Add to that being kept in the dark. When Lynn Valley Care home had cases, the community was notified. After all, workers and residents visited the shopping center across the street, so the community had a right to know. But if a student or an employee in a school contracts the virus only the PHO is to be notified not even the teachers in the affected school are to be told! We are two days in and already six schools from Castlegar to Delta have ‘cases’. Walk in the shoes of a teacher in an affected school who lives with an immunocompromised parent. Is their fear justified?

Transparency and Messaging

Teachers and the community are told regularly that the federal government has provided $242 million dollars and the provincial government has thrown in $45.6 million. Teachers want to know where this money is being spent. More to the point they would like to have a say! We see a plan to fund 5000 more long term care home workers but our request for reducing classroom density is falling on deaf ears. Districts seem to have no requirement to account for these extra dollars. Put yourself in the shoes of a teacher who cannot even acquire plexiglass barriers in her classroom.

Lucky are those at Roy Stibbs elementary school. The Principal’s brother happens to be in the renovation industry and kindly donated plexiglass barriers to protect his sister her staff. But why, in a district as well off as Coquitlam, is the Superintendent or Board not stepping up to help teachers in every school? Where are these millions of dollars? Why was there no teacher input into the distribution of these funds which will clearly exacerbate the inequities between districts and schools?

Postal workers are told to stay home due to the smoke but children whose lungs are still developing are required to go to school. It is reported that yesterday in Kamloops, a school’s air quality sensor registered at unacceptably high levels that posed a danger to staff and students. The solution: turn off the sensor! How does this engender trust?

Finally, teachers need to be given more information in a timely manner. To wake up on a Monday and find out that the health check list is different from Friday for no apparent reason is not acceptable. To be told that you are not permitted to know if a case was detected down the hall is hardly fair and to have a Minister refer to “layers of protection” that do not exist is insulting. Teachers feel like they are being treated like the proverbial mushroom and they are tired of the bovine scat. Walk around in any teacher’s shoes and ask if you trust the authorities and if you ‘feel significant’ in your role in the school.

What now?

C.S. Lewis said: “you can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”

We need to follow Lewis’s advice. We need to do something as simple as asking the teachers at each school what do you most need and how can we help. Perhaps this means taking a brief pause of a day or two to sit down and work out some practices that will, in the short term, improve the current situation as well as looking into the second half of the year which may require more drastic adjustments.

In the short term, many teachers are already implementing very good practices and these should be shared. My grandson’s grade 2 teacher sends a quick e-mail to the parents of each class member entitled ‘what we did today’. My daughter is reassured and informed. Jordan Tinney has done some good community video messaging that more Superintendents could be encouraged to do. These messages are better than the drivel from a Government wrapped up in election planning. There are many other more substantive practices that could be shared among a staff on everything from teaching methodologies to self care. Teachers deserve some time to internalize the vastly different landscape they are in and to share new practices.

Let’s admit that we are presently working under a plan designed for contact tracing and not for learning and let’s look to change this to a learning plan that supports the PHO’s contact tracing. I believe a school staff could design a much better plan that does not put teachers and students in five hour or two and a half hour long classes that exhaust teachers and frustrate learners. I believe that contact tracing could be facilitated without the cohort plan which falls apart the moment students exit the school if not before. Give a local district team the time to examine this for potential implementation at the secondary level in January 2021. Build it now knowing that the remote option can be incorporated as a part of the schedule which the Ministry refused to allow when the current plan was designed.

This would likely require accommodations about year end grades and exams as was done in the past year. This is a pandemic year that provides an opportunity to innovate but we are currently treating it as a crisis which we are trying to normalize. Let’s justify to the government the need for dollars to reduce classroom density, as they did in Denmark, by giving them a much better design than we are using. If the money can suddenly appear for long term care help and contact tracers, surely we can prove it also needs to be there for our children’s health.

Stop mixed messages coming from the PHO. Demand the same standard for the safety of teachers that is offered to every other workplace. WorkSafeBC has established sound levels of protection. Adhere to them. If level 1, physical distancing, is not applied as currently is the case, then ensure level two, plexiglass barriers, are provided. Make masks mandatory in the classroom so teachers have an added layer of protection. If not at elementary, then surely at secondary where we know spread can happen!

Change the policy of not informing teachers if there is a case in their school. This is applying the Trump doctrine of “I did not want to cause panic” that led to thousands more dying in the USA. An informed populace is always preferable to keeping people in the dark. Perhaps use the Covid app that Alberta and Quebec seem to have adopted. We need to respect and trust our teachers!

Provide more accommodation for teachers who are either immunocompromised themselves or live with a family member who is. Burnaby has done this by moving such a teacher into their DL program whereas reports indicate an Okanagan district is refusing such requests. This needs to be a priority for new-found federal money.

Finally, for now, be more transparent. After consulting with teachers, give them specific details of where the extra dollars are being spent. This will have to be done at the end of the year anyway, so reduce the tension and give the details now.

In BC, we are lucky. We have amazing teachers who are now our most critical frontline workers. They are holding the system together and giving their all every day and, often, more so on their own time. No one is out banging pots for them, but they deserve much more support than they are currently receiving. The Government need to reconsider its funding and messaging, the PHO needs to stop sending mixed messages and give the teachers the same protections accorded every other workgroup, and the local Boards need to ensure teachers’ needs, including adequate consultation are being met.

We all need to walk around in the teacher’s shoes to understand the stress and fear that exists in each of them as each day they care for and nurture our most precious resource.

Doug Player, September 15, 2020.

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