Margaret Everett, a public-school teacher in eastern Ontario, was excited to meet students on the first day of class. “Everybody had a seemingly good entry and beginning of the school year,” Everett, who asked that her real name be withheld, tells TVO.org. “But as much as we welcomed them, as much as I was warm and wanting to get to know these new guys, to build the excitement and provide that sense of safety and security in this bizarre classroom and school climate that we find ourselves in, I still went home and I said to my husband, ‘I think we made the right choice.’”
Some Ontario teachers, such as Everett, have chosen not to send their children back to school — even though they have returned to the classroom themselves. TVO.org speaks with Everett and two other teachers about the province’s reopening plan, their concerns about the upcoming term, and how they’ll be trying to keep their kids safe.
(TVO.org has changed the teachers’ names, as they were not authorized to speak to media.)
Everett, whose curriculum-services position involves going to different schools within her board to offer support in a range of subjects, returned to work on August 31. Her two daughters, who are entering kindergarten and Grade 2, will be staying home. “I have sort of an in, I guess, because I'm there, and I hear conversations, and I see what's happening,” she says. “But we had made our decision not to send our kids back before I saw students in classrooms.”
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For Everett and her family, the decision involved many factors, including the lack of information about the spread of COVID-19 and how it can affect children with different medical conditions. Her elder daughter has a ventricular septal defect, or a hole in her heart, and her younger daughter has asthma. While Everett says she hasn’t read anything that indicates her daughter would be at a greater risk of contracting the virus because of her heart condition, she doesn’t want to take that risk. “It may say that somebody with a heart defect has no bigger risk, but we look at it, and we say, ‘She's our seven-year-old daughter,’” says Everett. “Could we send them to school, and could they be totally fine? Yes. We recognize that. But we just aren’t willing to play that game that the premier would like to play with our children — to just do this and see what happens.”
One of Everett’s main concerns is how teachers will interact with some of the youngest learners. When she saw a junior-kindergarten student’s oversized mask fall off, she says, her first instinct was to pick it up. “I stopped myself, and I’m thinking, oh my goodness, we’re minutes into this school year, and I’m already not used to interacting with students in this way,” she says, adding that she would feel safe sending her kids to school only if there were zero COVID-19 cases in her community. “I'm thinking about my own kids being in a classroom with a teacher whose natural instinct is being shut down a little bit because of this restriction on how we go about our day.”
Gillian Woods teaches for the same eastern Ontario school board as Everett — and she’s also keeping her children home from school. “I still worry about large class sizes, outdated buildings with poor ventilation systems, mask policies that vary from board to board, and an inability to properly social distance,” she says.
This year, she will be homeschooling her daughter, who is entering Grade 3. (Even before the pandemic, she says, she wasn’t planning to send her three-year-old son to junior kindergarten.) A teacher for 13 years, she is currently on leave and says she recognizes how fortunate she is to be able to stay home: “There can be lots of information available to help parents make an informed choice, but the reality is that many households have to physically send their kids for reasons out of their control, regardless of how comfortable or uncomfortable they are with this decision.”
At first, Andrea Deer says, her son wanted to go back to school in person. But, two weeks ago, when the Toronto District School Board released its revised high-school plan, families got a second chance to make their decisions. “I sat down again and said, ‘What do you want to do?’ And he said, ‘Mom, I really don't feel safe.’” Deer will be teaching at an elementary school in Pickering this year, but her son, who usually commutes by GO train and bus to attend high school in Toronto, will be completing Grade 10 virtually.
As a single parent, Deer says, she had no choice but to go back to work. She is teaching a Grade 7/8 split class this year and serves as her school’s health and safety representative. The day before her school reopened, on September 8, she had to find gowns for the two kindergarten teachers so that they would be able to get close to the younger students, who still need physical help with coats and shoes. “This is what I'm doing, trying to find gowns and answer questions about [whether we should wear] masks, shields, both, neither, one.”
Deer says that faculty had three days to prepare the school before students started returning on a staggered schedule. She spent hours, she notes, painting lines to break their schoolyard into 12 designated sections — which each class will rotate through for recess — and performed a health and safety walkthrough. Her union asked that she confirm whether each classroom met the board’s recommendation of one metre of space between student chairs and two metres of isolated teaching space. "I don't see the magic 15 [student] number that Mr. Lecce is always talking about,” says Deer. “I don't see the one metre of space in classrooms. Out of 12 classrooms, I've got one that met that requirement — just one, and that's because there are only eight kids in that room."
A spokesperson for Education Minister Stephen Lecce tells TVO.org via email that the province is following “the leading medical advice” in reopening schools with preventative measures in place: “We recognize that school boards have developed plans that best suit their local needs. We will never hesitate from taking further action to protect the health and safety of Ontario’s students and education staff.”
Deer’s classroom will have 18 students this year, but that number will rise to 21 for part of each day, when eight students from the special-education support program join the group. “My class is exposed to two other rooms and 50 other kids,” Deer says. “All contrary to what the ministry is telling parents and the public.”
Deer isn’t taking any chances, she says: for example, she’ll be using a separate pair of shoes at school —they won’t be entering her home. Everett feels similarly about returning to work. “I never want to be the person that brings it into our family, because we know how quickly it can spread — we’re all just operating on what we think is the best thing to do.”
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