Teachers anxious about safety as school returns

Reception station outside Mutchmor Public School, awaiting students. PHOTOS: Roger Smith

“We do it  because we’re teachers and that’s what we do. Do we feel safe about it? No.”

By Roger Smith

As students trickle back in a staggered return to school, hopes that the reopening will be smooth and safe are countered by fears it won’t be.

Many parents signalled their anxiety by not sending their children back – according to the Ottawa Carleton District School Board, 27 per cent of elementary students and 21 per cent of high school students have opted to do online learning at home.

And teachers have continually sparred with the Ford government over safety concerns.

“I don’t feel an adequate plan has been put in place to keep me safe,” said a teacher at a Glebe school who didn’t want their name used because of fear of reprisals for speaking out.

“If I could choose to stay home and it was financially feasible, that’s what I would do. My sense from colleagues has been to go back. But we do it because we’re teachers and that’s what we do. Do we feel safe about it? No.”

Concerns include large class sizes, poor ventilation, crowded school buses and the ability of kids to cope with masks and social distancing. The teacher thinks the chance of COVID-19 outbreaks makes another shutdown almost inevitable.

“My feeling is we’re going back with good intentions, because kids need the social interaction and parents need to get back to work, but we’re going to close down again.”

Graham Long, a business and phys ed teacher at Glebe Collegiate, agrees it’s a difficult situation but thinks he and his colleagues can deal with it.

“I’m not really excited (about being back) but I’m comfortable with it,” he said. “Everyone wants to make the best of it and do what we can to make it work for the kids. It’s a challenge for sure, but everyone’s facing challenges on all fronts these days so it’s par for the course.”

A sign of what schools are up against – timetables for September are usually set by June but with uncertainty over how many students were coming back, Long still didn’t know a week before school resumed what classes he’d be teaching.

“It’s been challenging,” said OCDSB spokesperson Darcy Knoll. “There is a lot of uncertainty we’re dealing with. But what’s heartening is the incredible amount of work our staff has been doing over the summer, writing plans and rewriting plans to try to get kids back to class safely.”

For students staying home, one option for those that can afford it is a so-called pandemic pod, where a teacher is hired to instruct kids from several families. A Facebook group called Learning Pods Canada has more than 10,000 members. There are messages from teachers offering their services and parents looking for pods in their neighbourhood.

The unnamed teacher who spoke to the Glebe Report had several inquiries about private instruction. “I have friends calling me and saying ‘Hey, if you’re not going back, maybe you could teach my kids’.”

Pascale Pergant is sending her three kids back but may hire a tutor or set up Zoom sessions with other families, as she did in the spring, if the high-school mix of in-person and online learning falls short. She has also talked with friends about setting up a pandemic pod if school isn’t working out or shuts down again.

As school boards and others scramble to adapt, things like start dates are moving targets.

“We’ve had discussions that if things get really bad, we’d consider it, look into hiring a teacher,” she said.

Ana Marsland hopes it doesn’t come to that. Her three elementary-school kids are back in class, getting used to wearing masks all day.

“I think the kids need to go to school for their physical and mental well-being,” says Marsland. “They need to socialize.” And, she adds that parents need to get on with their lives too. “You can’t get the economy going again if parents can’t work.”

Roger Smith, a retired journalist, is copy editor of the Glebe Report and an occasional contributor.

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