There is a sense of high anxiety and dread as B.C. teachers are set to enter the classroom on Tuesday to kick off the new school year under COVID-19.
Many teachers have taken to social media to express concerns over what the new year will look like. Tuesday was supposed to be the first day for students, but the province pushed it back to Thursday to allow for two days of health and safety training for teachers, staff and administrators.
“This is different. If I’m being really truthful here, I’m more than a little bit scared. It did not have to be this way. This #bced plan is not a plan.”
The main concern for teachers continues to be the inability to physical distance in classrooms and how it may contribute to the spread of the coronavirus.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry says the expectation is students will be one metre apart when looking forward and should avoid face to face contact when closer than two metres. In many classrooms, even maintaining three feet in distance will be hard due to physical limitations.
“In school this week doing set-up, rejigging, trying to configure to keep my students safe, removing what furniture I can, I am gutted. This is a Tetris that will not work. There is no configuration where I can keep students distanced, safe. Restaurants can, I cannot,” Teacher Talker tweeted.
The B.C. government has informed school districts they can invest their share of the federal school re-start funding towards offering remote learning options and hiring additional teachers.
The B.C. Teachers Federation expects more remote options, combined with the hiring of additional teachers, will lead to less congestion in class. Teachers have repeatedly raised concerns that any more than 20 students cannot fit in many current classrooms without being at least three feet away from each other.
The union is advising teachers once they see inside their school on Tuesday to raise any potential health and safety concerns with their local president or health and safety representative.
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“We also know there are issues that still need to be resolved. So teachers will be going into their orientation tomorrow knowing some of the key presentation measures we have asked to put in place are not in place,” BCTF president Teri Mooring said.
“Let’s be clear here. There will not be physical distancing in classrooms. There are classrooms that are not large enough. It is not possible to physically distance in a classroom of 26, 30, or more students. That is why parents need a remote option.”
Some teachers have already been inside a classroom. Others have sent emails or social media posts to students and parents about lingering concerns.
High school teacher Lizanne Foster has published a letter to her grade 12 students online.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know why it’s not okay for you to hang out with 30 of your friends at a house party, but it is okay for you to be in a classroom with 30 students you don’t know. I’ve tried all summer to get an answer to this question for you and have not succeeded,” Foster writes.
“I also don’t know why you have been organized into cohorts that are supposed to stay separated, but it’s okay for you to hang out with friends from other cohorts at lunch.”
But Foster points to a project the students did about their families noting it was a surprise for many to learn about the difficult and challenging lives relatives had once lived. The letter goes on to encourage students they will get through this difficult time as well.
“Now, life’s lottery has dealt you a pandemic. In addition to other difficulties you may be going through, have gone through, or will go through this year, you’ll be ending your school career during a pandemic,” Foster writes.
“But just as your relatives survived and thrived, so will you. You got this.”
Mooring says the provincial government must take more responsibility to ensure all school districts are providing a distance option. The union is still hearing from a lot of families that a remote option is not available in their school district.
The union is also calling for a more robust mask policy and improvements to ventilation systems.
“It is inconceivable in many ways that we are going back under conditions that we don’t think are adequate,” Mooring said.
“We don’t think there are adequate preventative measures in place and that is a tough position for teachers to be in.”
CUPE British Columbia president Paul Faoro says there has been extensive consultation between his union and the province about a return to school. CUPE represents 30,000 workers in the school system including custodians, support staff, office staff and others.
“Folks are a bit on edge. It is not knowing what tomorrow looks like that has people concerned,” Faoro said.
“But I think we need to do this very carefully. We need to get the doors open and feel how this is going to roll out.”