2021:Another doozy in the books for public education

As December’s calendar pages turn to January, many of us find ourselves looking back on the year that was and pontificating about what is yet to come. As someone who watches public education with more than a passing interest, I feel I can quite successfully sum up 2021 in two words.

COVID sucks.

The year started off with the pandemic in full swing, and jurisdictions across the world were facing tough decisions about whether to re-open after the winter break. The opening of schools in September of 2020 had tested the mettle of a series of “Back to School” plans nationwide. The success of those plans ebbed and flowed as the virus waxed and waned and led many to shutter schools earlier than planned for the holiday break. As the calendar turned to 2021, many schools prepared to return to in person learning, a move that had teachers, parents and students on edge.

The first order of business in many classrooms in 2021, regardless of delivery method, was to try to deal with the fallout of the January 6th march-turned-mob-riot that unfolded on Capital Hill in Washington, D.C. Not everyone will understand the implications of such events for classroom teachers, but when faced with the complexities of the adult world, students often turn to their teachers for guidance. The unbridled loathing that Americans were demonstrating towards each other in that historic moment coloured many a classroom discussion in the early days of 2021.

By February, however, COVID once again dominated the airways, and as students returned to in-person learning, questions began to be asked about what the shut down had cost students in the way of learning loss. In one study out of the United States, it was suggested that pandemic based learning had cost students a third of a year in academic progress. The same study concluded that the gap was larger in students whose jurisdictions had gone fully on-line and was more pronounced in minority groups. In those populations, the study concluded that the learning loss was a full half of a year.

As schools stumbled through the spring of 2021, education departments seemed content to ignore such concerns as well as the impact the COVID crisis was having on the individuals charged with the running of schools. This was evidenced by a number of policy changes that seemed to be unified by their tone-deaf approach to worker wellness.

Leading the pack on this front was the UCP of Alberta who determined that launching a new P-6 curriculum was mid-pandemic appropriate. The curriculum, according to the Premier Jason Kenney, would prevent schools from teaching a “distorted” version of Canadian history and present a more flattering vision of our nation that would “cultivate gratitude and pride” in students. The curriculum, and the accompanying stress it placed on COVID weary teachers, was not particularly well received.

Close behind in the race to pile more onto an already reeling workforce, Doug Ford’s Conservatives decided it might be a good idea to maintain on-line learning as a major component of that province’s education delivery model. This was an extension of a 2019 decision of the Ford government to make online classes mandatory at the high school level; a decision that many claimed would lead to further privatization of education in that province and was more about money than it was about the kids. Not surprisingly, teachers in Ontario felt a bit hard done by after their efforts to combat COVID in schools.

Finally, here in Nova Scotia, the Liberal government announced that they would be abolishing what was know in the Halifax region as “Unassigned Instructional Time” (UIT). In HRCE, high school teachers traditionally taught three classes per semester, with the fourth being used as marking and preparation time or for filling duties such as monitoring hallways or providing student support. As the pandemic raged and teachers lurched back and forth between online and in-person learning, it was announced that starting in September of 2021, the last of the autonomy allowed to schools in determining where to allocate these resources would be removed, and high school teachers in the Province’s largest jurisdiction would now be required to teach 3.5 courses per semester as opposed to 3.

Education Minister Derek Mombourquette suggested at the time that this was being done to make things more consistent across the province, as other, more rural areas of Nova Scotia already had the 3.5 out of 4 model in place. Considering the circumstances (and the fact that existing system was working well for students in Halifax), intentionally increasing the workload of teachers for no other reason than consistency seemed unnecessary to say the least.

However, by the time the summer rolled around, there was reason for some hope on the horizon. The long awaited COVID vaccine was widely available, and families and loved ones were able to finally reunite after a long, hard separation. As well, the summer saw the final chapter written on the Stephen McNeil’s time in government, and education workers of all stripes breathed a sigh of relief. However, a new divide was emerging in society which teachers knew they would need to navigate come September. The summer of 2020 saw the anti-vax movement gather tremendous steam. Spearheaded by a group of American opportunists known in some circles as “The Disinformation Dozen“, cyberspace became a playground for denial theories and pseudo-scientific declarations, the likes of which few of us had ever seen.

September did, inevitably arrive, and with it another “Back-to-School” plan, which received mixed reviews. For the most part, however, schools in Nova Scotia managed to trundle along quite successfully, with the majority of them remaining open for the entire fall session. As students once again settled into their routines and schools began to plan for the return of in-person activities, the toll taken on the education sector by the pandemic (and the aforementioned tone-deaf policies) began to become apparent. By October, reports of staffing shortages raised concerns that without some major interventions, we could easily see emergency-room-like shut downs of our education centers. However, before we could consider if that was a viable concern, Omicron raised its ugly head, and now, educational institutions and the people who staff them find ourselves once again in a holding pattern.

So there, you have it. Much like every sector of society, the pandemic dominated education in 2021. As tough as it has been, we do have a great deal to be thankful for here in Nova Scotia. When looking at some other jurisdictions across the world, we held our own, educationally speaking at least, during what I hope will have been our most trying few years.

For myself, I am approaching this year with more than cautious optimism. I am finally envisioning a day in the not too distant future when I can walk into my school and see young faces, not masks, when I can meet students at the door of my classroom with a smile as opposed to hand sanitizer, and when I can finally, finally get my students back on our theatrically starved in-school stage.

There are many ways 2022 could go wrong. I, for one, am choosing to focus on what I hope will go right.

Best to you and yours in the new year.

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Filed under COVID-19, Education Policy, Educational Change, Nova Scotia Education Policy, Public education