Well, here we are, locked down again.
I suppose that I echo the sentiments of most Nova Scotians when I say I didn’t really miss this. Caged at home, unable to move, feeling claustrophobic, pining for contact with family and friends. Not really how any of us hoped to spend another East Coast spring.
The isolation is bit more poignant for those of us who work in public schools, I believe. That’s not to say we have it harder than anyone else, mind you, particularly those whose employment status has been once again impacted by these measures. We do, however spend an inordinate amount of time directly interacting with other human beings in a deeply meaningful way. There are a thousand cliches for what we do, as anyone involved in the coffee-cup slogan business will tell you. Personally, I like the ones that draw comparisons with gardening.
And, like all teachers, I am missing my crop of kids right now.
The online learning has certainly proven to have some saving graces, for sure. Despite its limitations and challenges, (and the fact that it is a boat load of extra work) interacting with the students at least lets me retain some sense of normalcy in an otherwise off-kilter world. Having had almost an entire year to prepare, teachers have gotten better at this delivery model, which, if we are being realistic, will probably be our lot for the rest of the school year.
It is that penchant for realism, however, that has me turning a trepidatious eye to September. I don’t think any of us want to imagine schools not reopening for in-person learning in 2021, but with apologies to the coffee-cup slogan people, I wonder in what state we will find our collective gardens when that opening bell rings?
The decision to fully open our schools in September of 2020 was, in my opinion, foolhardy. A gradual, incremental opening would have helped with the tremendous psychological burden that was placed on educational staff. Assurances from the government that schools were safe did little to allay fears. Having come through several months of “Stay the blazes home!” messaging, the declaration that schools were somehow immune from COVID-19 simply because “We say so” rang hollow. Faith in government was certainly not bolstered by their approach to air quality testing and ventilation.
Schools did open, and despite what was a palpable fear, carried on. Teachers did their best to enforce COVID safety protocols like sanitizing and mask wearing. They removed excess furniture from rooms to reduce the risk of contact spread and moved desks as far apart as they could. They placed directional arrows on the floor and closed water fountains.
Most importantly, even while facing daily concerns about air quality, and lack of physical distancing, and rising COVID numbers, they put on a brave face to help the kids believe that everything was going to be alright. They did this with reassurance after reassurance from the employer that schools were safe; reassurances that have recently been proven abjectly, unequivocally and terrifyingly wrong.
In short, the year has been exhausting.
That, of course, brings us to September. I find myself wondering if there will be any recognition of what the people who staff our schools have been through when they reopen in the fall?
Educational jurisdictions have traditionally been somewhat tone deaf on such matters. Recent announcements of sweeping educational reform in Ontario, Manitoba and Alberta in the midst of climbing COVID numbers provide testament to that. Even here at home, changes to scheduling practice in the Halifax Region are adding considerable angst to an already angst ridden year. (For a further take on that particular issue, check out NSTU President Paul Wozney’s comments.)
It strikes me, however, that if governments wish to acknowledge the efforts of teachers during the pandemic, increasing the amount of stress being placed on the system seems a pretty poor way of saying “Thanks”.
I am not suggesting pay raises or pandemic bonuses, both of which are being used in other jurisdictions as a way of keeping teachers in the profession. I am also not suggesting that teachers need some sort of ticker-tape parade, although I do believe something of the sort will eventually be in order for our front-line health care staff. What I am suggesting is that we shouldn’t ignore the emotional and psychological impact this moment in time is having on the people who staff our schools. We need to be turning our minds now to what extra training, supports and resources will need to be in place come September to ensure not just the wellbeing of the kids, but of the people charged with their care.
There is a growing body of evidence that the education profession is not ok. Staffing shortages, attrition rates and higher than average incidents of burn-out are well documented. When we come out of this, we will need to be prepared to address the long-term educational fallout. Our schools will undoubtedly be dealing with the impacts of COVID 19 long after the last vaccination has been given.
If we want our gardens to flourish, we are going to have to spend a bit more time looking after the gardeners than has traditionally been the case.
Taking something off their plates this September, as opposed to adding something on, would be a very good place to start.