“The kids are scared—not just of Covid itself but of another lockdown”

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Classroom confessional: “The kids are scared—not just of Covid itself but of another lockdown”

A Toronto middle school teacher on what it’s been like to be back in class during this turbulent time

—As told to Raizel Robin

I’m a middle school teacher in north Toronto. I teach core subjects: math, language, history and geography. I’ve been a teacher for 25 years. The beginning of the school year is usually my favourite time. I’m often busy with new clubs and committees, with meetings and planning—I like to get involved in extracurriculars, to help students build the school culture they want. I like planning, not just school trips and events. And I like to help the students set initiatives and goals for the year. It’s a fresh start, and I like to see what each new class brings to the school.

Our school is lucky to have a space students can use for design and tech—a hands-on science and engineering class, where students use power tools and hand tools (in the old days, this was called “shop”). Kids love it! But due to Covid restrictions, we can’t offer it this year. It’s not the academics that motivate middle schoolers to attend class everyday. It’s everything else, and we can’t offer “everything else” during Covid. I can’t help kids with clubs and student council right now because I can’t be with kids outside my cohort. Most days I feel like I’m disappointing my students.

We’re now trying to figure out how we can use Google Meet to plan clubs and our student council. It’s tricky because we require the support of virtually every teacher to supervise those students at school who wish to take part, since those kids have to stay in their classrooms for the meeting. Staff meetings are just as awkward: we as a staff can’t be together unless we maintain physical distance outside in the field or stick to Google Meet, broadcasting from our respective classrooms. This is a precaution since at school, teachers are bubbled with their cohort, which only includes their students, not other teachers.

One thing that’s the same this year is the excitement to be back. I’d say it’s even greater than most years. The kids are thrilled to be at school. I do daily check-ins with my students, and so far, most describe their mood as “happy” (the rest say they’re “tired”—pretty typical for this age group). Kids seem more studious this year. I find mine are laser-focused on doing their best. I think they were starved for routine during the lockdown.

I was supposed to start the year with 27 students. Normally I would have 32. At the last minute, cases started going up and five of my students switched to online, leaving me with 22 kids. The minimum required distance for desks is one metre apart, per the recommendations in the school reopening guidelines issued by Sick Kids. We meet that in my classroom. Some classes have taken over larger spaces like the library. Their desks are two metres apart. I’m also lucky to have a wall of windows that open.

We’re all trying to stay positive, but there’s no doubt there are big challenges this year. Aside from the lack of clubs and sports, the school feels emptier, quieter. Forty per cent of the student body went online, and several colleagues have been redeployed online or to other schools—for us, that includes our librarian and our guidance counsellors. Most of the school’s computers were given to students who needed them for virtual learning. If teachers are using media in class, the students need to bring their own devices. Not all students have their own, though, so teachers are scrambling to share what we have. We’re trying to get around the barriers to access. Often this means computers are not an option—it’s back to paper and pencil!

But the biggest challenge is the new protocols. We do health checks before the students come in—they fill out a Covid self-assessment form each day, which keeps them and us aware of any symptoms. So far we haven’t had to send anyone home. We had an app for this but it wasn’t working well, so now we have a paper form for students to fill out. We all must wash our hands every time we leave the room and every time we return. My class has been good about that. There is a lot of support from parents who are reinforcing these protocols at home. The students want to follow the rules. They’re scared—not just of Covid itself but of another lockdown. The kids know the number of cases is rising. At recess, outside, the kids can take off their masks for a break, but about half leave them on all the time to be safe. They’re being extra vigilant.

As teachers, we’re far more aware of the students’ mental health needs than before Covid. We talk with our students about how we feel. We talk about mood. One student asked, “Is school going to be like this forever?” When you’re 12 or 13, a year can seem like forever. We all miss the colleagues who were redeployed. Because kids are in cohorts they can’t socialize with friends outside their cohort. Sometimes these are good friends; the kids miss them. We have two different lunch and recess breaks to maintain distance in the school yard. The school board also marked the playground into regions. Each cohort must stick to its own region when outside.

Life just seems more serious, with everyone soldiering on. We’re all trying to stay positive. I like to start my day with an inspirational video that lifts us up in our class. We also do a virtual journal on Google Classroom, where I ask the kids to share their thoughts. I try to get them to express their feelings through writing. I want them to understand that these are difficult times but things will get better. In class, we talk about obstacles that others have faced and overcome, like settling in a new country or learning a new language. You can’t think too far ahead. Never have we lived more in the now.

I love the creativity of teaching: like, how am I going to get this into a student’s brain? I spend all my time thinking about that kind of stuff. I’m constantly problem-solving. For example, in the past I’ve often used objects like cube-a-links (similar to Lego) or even playing cards to teach kids computational skills. We can’t use those resources now. How do I make school, and learning, fun and social when we have to stay apart, be careful what we touch and wear masks? How do we create a supportive environment when we ourselves feel uncertain about what’s happening one day to the next?

At the end of each day, I’m exhausted. Then I scramble home and support my own two kids. We’re all trying to appear like we know everything that’s going on, but really we’re doing it on the fly. There are a lot of creative people trying to make things the best they can for the kids, who are all so happy to be back, and really want Covid to go away.