Back to school, Part 2: A teacher on reopening safely

TVO.org speaks with an elementary-school teacher about instructing and comforting students from six feet away — and why they think we’re headed for another shutdown
By Matt Gurney - Published on Jul 22, 2020
The provincial government has indicated that school vehicles could reduce capacity to maintain physical distancing. (iStock.com/BalkansCat)

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This is the second instalment in a series on reopening Ontario’s public schools. Read Part 1 here; watch for Part 3 on Thursday.

As Ontario moves into Stage 3 of reopening, critics of the Doug Ford government have sounded the alarm that the province will be allowing relatively high-risk activities, such as service inside bars and restaurants, to resume before the province has sufficiently flattened the curve. A resurgence of COVID-19 now, it is feared, would jeopardize the reopening of schools in September. A common criticism of the Tories has been that they have developed only general guidelines — not a plan to reopen schools — and that time is running out. What would such a plan look like? This week, TVO.org is asking experts and insiders for their views on what a safe reopening for schools would mean and what challenges it would entail. Today: An elementary teacher for a public school in the Greater Toronto Area. (As they were not authorized to speak with the media by their board or administration, TVO.org has agreed to keep them anonymous.)

Matt Gurney: I spoke with an infectious-disease expert earlier this week, and I had a lot of questions for him about the specifics of a school as an environment — the building, the surfaces, the airflow, things like that. But a key issue with schools is, to state the obvious, kids. I asked him about the challenge of kids, and he sort of drew an admittedly arbitrary line between kids younger than, say, Grade 3 or 4, and those older. The older kids, he noted, will become more biologically similar to adults and more behaviourally similar, too. They’ll respect social distancing. They’ll wash their hands properly. So you’ve taught it all, kindergarten to Grade 8. When would you start trusting them?

Teacher: I’d say Grade 6. And I wouldn’t trust this year’s cohort of Grade 6 students. The Grade 5s who had their school year cut off last year are going to be new to this. We all are. But, whatever we want the kids to be doing in terms of best-hygiene practices, we want to start teaching them very young, and then by Grade 3 or 4, we’d probably begin to assume they’d be good on their own. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to teach them about this last year before it was all shut down, and we can’t assume they’re learning these kinds of behaviours at home. I hope they were. I hope their families were teaching them. But we can’t assume that.

Gurney: That’s interesting. I’m not an expert, and that’s older than my kids, so I don’t really know what I’m in for, I guess. But that’s older than I’d have guessed. When the doctor told me around Grade 3 or 4, that sounded about right. So let’s assume, then, that you’ll need to be actively engaged with making sure that hands are being washed, physical distance is being respected, and so on. You’ve never done this before, but what jumps out at you as the first thing you’re going to be dealing with if and when schools reopen?

Teacher: The first thing that I’m worried about is space. Physical space. If I’m going to have 15 kids in my classroom, and if we assume that I’m at the front of it — that’s a problem we’ll talk about it in a minute, but let’s assume that for now — I don’t know if I can fit 15 kids and keep them six feet apart. I actually have a pretty large classroom. A lot of classrooms are smaller than mine. 

But I’ve been thinking about this. I don’t honestly know if we can come up with a seating plan that keeps everyone six feet apart. But, even if we find a way to squeeze everyone in, the first time someone needs to move, it all falls apart. The student closest to the door, I guess, can get up and go to the bathroom. Everyone else has to just sit there, including me. There’s no way to maintain physical distancing without everyone staying in place. And that’s what I was saying before about me staying at my desk. How am I going to get supplies from the back of the classroom? How am I going to look over a kid’s shoulder when they’re struggling with a math problem and say, “Oh, Bobby, you forgot to carry the seven.” Teachers move about their classrooms constantly because we have to. Distancing isn’t going to work, and, again, I have a big classroom.

Gurney: Exactly what you’re describing has occurred to me but in a different context. I’m the parent who does drop-off and pickup for my kids at school. And there are hundreds of parents and grandparents and nannies all packing themselves into the school yard and standing around the doors chatting while we wait for the bell to go. Older kids walk themselves or bring their younger siblings and neighbours to school, but both of mine are young, so I have to walk them. You’re not just going to have problems with kids in the classrooms. You’re going to have hundreds of parents all showing up and leaving at the same time.

Teacher: You’re right. If you tried to space everyone out, you’d fill the whole field. At my school, we had already put rules in place about where parents could be at drop-off and pickup times. So that’s helpful. Every school will probably need a version of that. But even once the parents get the kids to the school, we need to get the kids inside the school. We use two doors. We have almost 800 students. So that’s almost 400 kids, and their teachers, all going through a door — and all within a few minutes. Multiple times every day. 

Gurney: I was going to ask you about that. Can we stagger start and end times? It would sort of be a hassle for me, and a lot of other parents, if we did it by grade. I’d have two drop-off and two pickup times. But, just even in theory, could we do this? 

Teacher: In theory, sure. But in practice? No. My school is 90 per cent bused. I guess you’re walking distance to school?

Gurney: Yeah, and a short walk. I could go back and forth if I had to.

Teacher: Here, the kids are bused. Like I said, 90 per cent. And our geographic area is wide. It just wouldn’t be feasible. The kids arrive at the same time and leave at the same time. We can’t bus them back and forth at different times — it wouldn’t be realistic. Maybe we could actually bring them in at different times, though, once they were there. But then you need to make sure they stay physically distanced while waiting. If we kept them six feet apart, we’re going to have them lined up by classes stretching way back into the field. 

Gurney: Right, and it could be raining or freezing cold that day. You know, I grew up in the 905 suburbs, so a ton of my classmates were bused. But I guess I’m spoiled as a parent to live so close to a school. I hadn’t even thought of buses. It had not crossed my mind. How are you going to physically distance on a bus? Like, we’re going to have a problem before we even get these kids to school. 

Teacher: You can’t. It’s not possible. And, again, we only have the two doors. So the first class through is fine. The last class is walking through a space that everyone else has just gone through. And late arrivals, too. 

Gurney: Something very depressing occurs to me. The pandemic has not brought out my inner optimist. But, in recent decades, when building new school facilities or retrofitting old ones, we’ve actually done our best to limit access. We live in a world where child abductions or shooting attacks are things our school administrators have to plan for. And one of the best ways to defend against those kinds of threats is to limit the access. So, for example, my kids’ school is entirely enclosed in fencing, with only a few limited access points through the fencing. Those access points were monitored by staff. And, then, once you’re through those, like you were saying, the kids are all funnelled through the same doors. Again, this is monitored. This is for safety. During the school day, all the doors are locked, and anyone arriving for any purpose needs to go to one entrance, where they can be viewed on camera before being buzzed in. This is a hassle, but we all know the kind of horrific events that we’re trying to avoid through these passive defences. So we accept it as necessary. It makes sense if you’re worried about a crazed attacker with a rifle or someone looking to snatch a kid. But, in the context of a viral pandemic, it’s actually the worst thing. We’d be better off if every classroom had its own door to the outside world. 

Teacher: When I grew up, we did. We could go into and out of our classroom directly. 

Gurney: Same. At least in part of my elementary school, there were doors to the outside for every classroom. Those would be great to have now. And it’s ironic because, in some ways, the older the school, maybe the more adaptable it is to fighting COVID-19.

Teacher: For sure. But, to your point, what’s a lockdown going to look like during the pandemic? Lock the doors and everyone get down, but stay six feet apart? A fire drill that’s socially distanced? These things aren’t going to work.

Gurney: We’re identifying a lot of problems. I want to make a conscious effort to be productive. What solutions can we offer? How can we address some of these problems.

Teacher: [laughs] Matt, I still have more problems to list!

Gurney: [laughs] Well, okay, keep going!

Teacher: Hallways. I don’t think they’re wide enough to allow physical distancing. I admit I haven’t measured it. But I’m imagining my school, and I’m asking myself, could someone who’s six feet tall lie down across the hallway, between the locker rows? If so, it would just barely work. So lockers are going to be a problem. And even just moving around the halls will be a challenge. You’ll need it to be like a road. Stick to the far right, each way. 

Gurney: Again, something else that just hadn’t occurred to me: lockers. I guess I’m getting old, and school is an increasingly hazy memory. Let me ask you this: like I mentioned, I chatted with a doctor about schools, and we were talking about whether COVID-19 would spread in them, and he noted that everything else does. We have outbreaks of colds, flus, and diarrhea in schools every year, particularly in the younger grades. How often are parents sending kids to school while they’re sick?

Teacher: [laughs] Oh, Matt, it’s all the time. All the time. And we know. We know your kids. We know when they aren’t feeling well. Or we can see them, if they’re visibly sick. Earlier in my career, I was getting bronchitis a lot. Maybe twice a year. And it was the carpet in my classroom. Kids had been sneezing and puking on it, and it was never properly cleaned. When the carpet was replaced with tile, I stopped getting bronchitis as often. We work in petri dishes. But, yeah, look: when a kid comes to school sick, we know it. Their parents knew it when they sent them. And then I get it, and then half the class gets it. This is constant. It will happen with COVID-19.

Gurney: So you’re being clear that students come in when they’re obviously and visibly ill. And COVID-19, meanwhile, can spread asymptomatically.

Teacher:  It will spread like wildfire. Think of lice. We have to send letters home. Hand-foot-mouth. We send letters home when we have outbreaks. Female teachers sometimes have to be careful if they are or plan to become pregnant. We can try cohorting in classes. We can try physical distancing. But kids will come in while sick, and they’ll find ways to meet up and chat. It’s inevitable. 

Gurney: And I’m guessing once the kids hit puberty, well, they’ll have new motivations to seek each other out.

Teacher: Absolutely. It’ll happen. They get sneakier! [laughs] My classroom is next to a washroom, and I can hear the giggling and conversations. They meet up and chat.

Gurney: I want to ask you about children with special needs. I know that a lot of parents whose kids have special needs are feeling left out of the conversation a bit. All of the focus is on schools assuming relatively normal, optimal conditions. Classes with no or minimal special needs. I’m part of the problem, because these articles aren’t focused on special needs either. And I have to imagine that parents of kids with special needs are the ones who most need to get their kids back into school. Their kids need specialized support and, frankly, the parents need a break. Do you have experience with special-needs settings?

Teacher: I do. I’ve done it all. And you’re absolutely right about the parents. They must be exhausted right now. The special needs are going to be a huge challenge. We have runners. Kids that just make a break for it. How does that work in isolation? Some kids have violent outbursts. They’ll attack. So they’ll be within six feet! My school has more than 700 students, and we have one staff member assigned to handle special needs. That’s minutes a day per student — and from a physical distance? Won’t work. I know I keep saying that. But this is an accident waiting to happen.

Gurney: I want to ask you again something I asked you above. We’re identifying tons of problems. Is there anything we can do to fix them? There’s huge political and economic and even educational pressure to get schools open again, and soon. So what are we going to be able to do by September?

Teacher: There are a lot of people who work for school boards who aren’t teachers. A lot of money goes into non-classroom positions. We should deploy some of those people into the schools. We’re going to be desperate for people, I think. I think we’ll need the bodies. And that’s something we can do within our budgets. We’re already paying these people. Let’s get them into schools helping out. Can you imagine getting 15 young kids into snowsuits at the end of the day when I’m not supposed to touch them? It’s not going to be possible and we’re going to need help. 

And this might sound like overkill, but maybe Plexiglas? Barriers of some kind in classrooms? Maybe we can solve some of these issues by having partitions, including around my desk. Give me some protection. Kids are used to running up to my desk when there’s a problem or when they need help. Younger kids are going to want hugs when they’re upset. A barrier will help remind everyone that we have to keep our distance. Cashiers in grocery stores now have barriers. Teachers should have them, too. I have a mother in her eighties, and I’m her primary caregiver. I’m terrified I’m going to catch something that will kill her. A lot of teachers will feel the same way.

Gurney: I don’t want to speculate too much about this, but, I mean, we saw health-care workers and care-home workers essentially abandon their posts in Quebec and Ontario when things got bad. And I don’t even blame them. But we had to bring in the military for a reason, right? We ran out of people. I suspect we’ll see absenteeism in schools, and I don’t mean the students. Teachers are going to have to decide what their risk tolerance is.

Teacher: Yep. I agree. I don’t know how many won’t come back. But we won’t get 100 per cent of teachers back in the classroom.

Gurney: I’m curious about communication. Are you getting much? We still have some time — schools won’t open for six more weeks. So I can buy that they will make announcements they aren’t ready to make yet. But what are you hearing? 

Teacher: I've gotten nothing. Basically nothing. I get an email, a blanket email from the board director, maybe once a month, just saying we're working on it. But there's nothing there. So I've got nothing. It's radio silence. I mean, it's summer, I guess. From the union, we've gotten some surveys to fill out, but they don't know anything. 

Gurney: Are there any outside-the-box ideas that have occurred to you or that you’ve seen on message boards or chat groups and whatnot? Just as an example, I saw one Facebook post suggesting that the government use its emergency powers to basically conscript businesses that have idle facilities. Movie theatres were an example. And start using their facilities as classrooms. You can fit a lot more than 15 kids in a movie theatre with hundreds of seats. Spread the kids out even more and keep everyone safer.

Teacher: I saw that, too! That was interesting. That would be hard. It’s a great idea, but you’d need to make the environment safe for kids. You’d need to coordinate busing and transportation. How do you decide what kids would go there? What supplies would you need? One idea that did occur to me is that, if you wanted to do that, do it with the older kids. The high-school kids. And then move elementary-school kids into high-school facilities.

Gurney: Huh. That is interesting. The high-school kids are more independent, and you could do more virtual stuff with them anyway. And, yeah, then you’d have school buildings you could move younger grades into and keep them separated. What about converting existing school assets into classrooms? Like libraries and gyms.

Teacher: Libraries, for sure. Gyms? Maybe. They usually aren’t ventilated very well, but we could look at that. But, like we were saying before, the way the schools were designed is all wrong for this. There’s no ventilation. No crossflow of air. So, yes, we can spread out, but the schools aren’t suited for this. Classrooms are supposed to have sinks. Not all do, especially in older facilities. So how are we going to wash our hands without sinks. Do your kids have sinks in their classrooms?

Gurney: [awkwardly long pause] If I were a better father, I’d know this. But, alas, I am not. No! Wait. My son definitely did. He was in senior kindergarten when the world ended. They had a bathroom. But my daughter? I don’t know. I’ve been in the classroom, but I don’t recall if they had sinks or not.

Teacher: If not, I hope they have lots of sanitizer. And soap. We never have enough soap. It’s always a struggle to get more. 

Gurney: What do you think is going to happen in September? I know that’s a big question, and a lot is going to depend on the virus itself. Canada’s numbers looked great for a while, but they’re suddenly turning the wrong way, right across the country. Maybe it’s a blip; maybe it’s a sign that we’re going full Florida. Who knows? But, all that being said, what do you think September might look like?

Teacher: Even before September, we need information. We need checklists. Plans. Information we can share. Information that the families will get. Rules for the students. And, even if we get all those things, we need to then actually absorb them. So, in September, I don’t think we’ll do much learning. Much education, I mean. I think all our early efforts are going to be learning how to do school again. How to be teachers. How to be students. And there’s going to be a lot of emotions. The kids aren’t dumb. They know what the pandemic is. They know it’s dangerous. They’ll need comfort and reassurance, and I’ll be trying to give it from six feet away. I think that will be the first few weeks. We’re going to be psychologists and mothers and fathers when they come in. They’re going to want to talk.

Gurney: Do you think we’ll get through a school year without another closure? I have my opinion, but I don’t want to influence your answer, so I won’t share it yet.

Teacher: Nope. Zero chance. We’ll have normal influenza in the fall and winter, combined with COVID, and no chance of a vaccine by then. I think we’ll shut down again. Maybe for not as long. But we won’t make it through the full year.

Gurney: That was almost verbatim what my guess would be, too.

Teacher: I know why the government wants us to go back. I really do. I get it. There’s political pressure and economic pressure, and parents just need to get their lives back. I really do understand that. But one of the main arguments for reopening school is the mental health of the children, right? They need to be in school for their own development and well-being. Okay, but has anyone thought about how scary shutting down the schools was the first time? How traumatized are they going to be if we all come back and, a month later, we’re shutting it all down again because it’s too dangerous to be in school? We’re going to be teaching the kids that schools are dangerous. It’s going to scar them. 

Are we maybe better off opening up with as much virtual as possible and then slowly returning to class when we can, instead of getting everyone back in school and then shutting it all down? What if some of these kids have their teacher die? A lot of us are over 50. Some of us have health problems. Is this really what’s best for the mental health of the students?

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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