Need a plan to re-open schools? Ask the teachers

Sask Bulletin
September 2, 2020
By By Shelley L. Morse, Canadian Teachers’ Federation President

Shelley L. Morse, Canadian Teachers’ Federation President

Instead of the long, hot, carefree days of summer that we have experienced in years past, trepidation and anxiety fill the air for teachers; questions abound of what is next.

The countdown towards September is quickly underway and in too many parts of the country there are no concrete plans on how to re-open schools properly. What plans have been divulged are light on details and fail to answer many of the same questions raised when this crisis began.

Namely, with physical distancing and the resulting reduced class sizes and fewer days at school, how will all students receive a quality education? And, if learning together rather than remotely on screens is possible, how can it be done safely? Some authorities point to distance or online learning as the answer, but as the majority of teachers, students and their families have discovered, learning in front of a screen is not a long-term solution for anyone and it seriously disadvantages many.

When the COVID-19 pandemic descended upon us, most were caught flat-footed. Over the span of a couple of weeks in March, a health crisis on the other side of the world crashed Canada’s borders like a tsunami. The lives of Canadians were turned upside down, seemingly overnight. School buildings were shuttered and working from home and distance learning became a way of life for countless families. Those who were deemed essential workers were left with few options when it came to childcare, and safety concerns did and continue to cause undue stress for a vast number of people.

Those forced into unemployment struggle to put food on the table, the threat of violence targeting the most vulnerable increases as tensions within households grows and the lack of access to Wi-Fi or digital devices has left countless children cut off from learning.

Now, the element of surprise is gone. Whether we like it or not, the reality in which we are living has settled in–masks and physical distancing are a way of life. But, as September looms large anything resembling concrete plans for how children and youth will head back to classrooms remains unknown. This is the case in virtually all provinces and territories where teachers have been largely kept in the dark, shut out from discussions focused on how to get our kids, teachers and education support personnel back into schools safely.

Governments at all levels across the land have had ample time to look toward the fall, winter and beyond. Unfortunately, that opportunity appears to have been neglected. The education community is left wondering how that may happen, and parents and guardians are growing concerned about lost learning while they scramble to arrange alternative learning options amidst great uncertainty.

Even with little time left to prepare, together we can work to develop a plan that helps guarantee our children and youth have equitable access to the quality, publicly funded public education they deserve, while ensuring that they and the adults we entrust them with are as safe as possible.

This is a moment that requires creativity to break free from what was once the norm in order to adapt to what we are dealing with today. We know that online distance learning is no replacement for in-class learning. In fact, learning solely on a screen is detrimental to quality learning and an affront to building a more equal society.

Distance learning, while decreasing the threat of spreading COVID-19, has ignited crises of inequity and mental health among students and teachers. According to our national survey of members, two-thirds of teachers expressed concerns on how the impact of screens relied upon to learn during the pandemic is having on the physical, mental, social and emotional well-being of children and youth. And more than eight out of 10 respondents who shared their views are concerned about returning to public school buildings. Of the teachers who responded to open-ended questions, 99 percent have concerns about the return to school buildings and discussed anxieties around not knowing the plans, adding that constant changes from ministries of education, without proper time and supports to adapt, have taken a toll on their mental health and well-being.

At this point from the teachers’ perspective, and we believe for most families too, it is evident that the current conditions are unsustainable and rushing back to pre-COVID-19 methods of face-to-face instruction simply may not be an option until there is a vaccine.

So under these circumstances we need to look at rethinking what constitutes a school building. Physical distancing is with us for months to come and knowing that distance learning is not quality learning or equitable learning, it is time to consider looking at other spaces available in our communities where quality education can occur in person safely. Offices, arenas and university campuses may all be empty or underutilized after Labour Day weekend making them the perfect alternatives to holding reduced class sizes. And when the weather permits, outdoor classrooms are good options too.

At the same time, we need to address the mental health and well-being of many students and teachers too. National standards for access to mental health services will need to take into account that this pandemic is causing significant and not yet fully understood impacts on psychological health.

This is why more, not fewer, teachers and education support personnel, including trained counsellors, are going to be needed when school is underway. A significant focus of teaching for this next while will need to be rooted in trauma-informed practice, so additional supports for teachers and education support personnel to effectively address how the COVID-19 crisis has affected students’ behaviour and mental health will be needed.

Until our children and youth get back to learning together, we must ensure that those who need breakfasts receive them, that those who face difficult situations at home have a safe outlet and adults they can confide in and that all students have the same opportunity to learn.

This is why moving on from distance learning, something that should only be deemed a temporary solution, is so important. Also, getting children back learning together means that parents and guardians who are able to work can do so without the constant stress about the learning needs and well-being of their children, or the stress that comes with having to work and support remote learning day in and day out.

This is why publicly funded public education matters, and these are just some of the ideas and insights that teachers can share with governments to ensure that our youngest, our most vulnerable, and most importantly, our future leaders are able to continue the quality education they need. Governments at all levels simply need to consult and work with us to make these ideas a reality.

I hope that governments and teachers can stand together knowing that shared expertise will make a return to school possible for all students and something for them to look forward to as we navigate our way through a crisis that is far from over.