Anxiety and confusion for some B.C. teachers heading back to the classroom
With school district plans finalized, some teachers say questions remain about the school reopening
With two weeks to go before school starts, elementary school teacher Chrystal Tagmann is busy preparing her classroom in Surrey, B.C., to welcome second and third graders. But along with the brightly coloured picture books and alphabet posters, Tagmann is also carefully spacing out desks and tacking up fabric face masks for her use on the cork board.
This is what preparing for school looks like during a pandemic.
"Everyone is really trying to be patient," said Tagmann, of herself and her fellow teachers. "That being said, we're two weeks away from the beginning of the school year and we still have considerable concerns."
The majority of B.C.'s school-aged children are heading back to school on Sept. 10 with modifications in place to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Staff arrive earlier, on Sept. 8, to help orient students to the new rules.
The province's plan will place students in learning groups of 60 to 120 children that will allow for social interaction while limiting potential exposure to the novel coronavirus and simplifying the process of contact tracing. Face masks will be required for some students in high-traffic areas like hallways and on buses but not in classrooms.
On Wednesday, school districts released their individual learning plans, with different modifications according to their own district's demographics and resources.
Education Minister Rob Fleming assured the province would "remain flexible" in the face of the pandemic, saying many districts were adding learning options that weren't conceivable a few months ago.
The federal government also announced $2 billion of extra funding for schools reopening across the country, with $242.4 million earmarked for B.C.
Yet Tagmann and other teachers like her say they haven't received enough guidance around concerns around physical distancing in the classroom, the availability of extra resources to accommodate things like outdoor learning, and what supports will exist for students who may have fallen behind due to the disruption caused by the pandemic.
She's also among the many teachers who are restricting their own social circles as they prepare to join a learning group in September.
"There are people in my life that I'm just not going to be able to see because they are at risk or because they are older," Tagmann said.
"[This school year] is going to involve some sacrifices."
Tough decisions for on-call teachers
There's another layer of anxiety for teachers like Christine McKinnon, a Vancouver-based secondary school teacher who teaches English, French and food studies.
McKinnon, who is a teacher teaching on-call (TTOC), often taught at a different school every day pre-pandemic. She says she's received little guidance on what that will look like with new learning groups meant to limit the number of people who interact with one another.
The Minister of Education said in a statement that TTOCs will have to maintain physical distance from students and other staff as much as it is practical to do so whenever they are in a learning group.
Watch | Chrstine McKinnon says there doesn't seem to be a clear plan yet for teachers on call:
It also pointed that some larger school districts — like the Vancouver School District — have offered TTOCs the option to choose a school quadrant, so they will only be on call for a select group of schools.
But McKinnon says this isn't financially viable for many TTOCs, some of whom have not had any work since the March shutdown.
Teri Mooring with the B.C. Teachers Federation agreed, saying there's a balance between TTOC's livelihoods and making sure not too many adults go into the cohorts.
"They need enough work to support their families," Mooring said, adding school-based contracts for TTOCs might be one solution.
McKinnon, who is eager to head back into the classroom, says she just wants more clarity on her role as the school year quickly approaches.
"Every teacher, friend, colleague, stranger that I've spoken to wants to go back to work — but in a safe way."
With files from Belle Puri, Jon Hernandez