Kitchener-Waterloo·In Depth

Anxious times for teachers as fall classroom return looms — without a plan

Educators and politicians in Waterloo region are eager to see what's in the Ontario government's plan for the return to classrooms this fall. With just over a month before school is set to begin, teachers hope to soon learn what they should be doing.

'I’m feeling like it’s going to be very, very chaotic,' says teacher Jim Fare

Students are set to return to the classroom on Sept. 7. Educators in Waterloo region are waiting to hear what's in Ontario's plan for a safe start to the school year. (Jane Robertson/CBC)

When Amy Brillinger Tuka thinks about the return to school in September, she feels a mix of anxiety and frustration.

The kindergarten teacher in the Waterloo Catholic District School Board says she, like other parents and educators, are waiting to hear the Ontario plan for a safe return to the classroom.

The 2020 school year started with last-minute changes and now, Brillinger Tuka says, teachers are facing it again this fall.

"My frustration comes from lack of communication — the lack of communication from the Ministry of Education, the lack of communication from the school board and those two things combined make anxiety and frustration within the staff at the school, so between teachers in the same division, between teachers and the administration, between everyone in the school and parents in the community," the mother of two said in an interview.

"It comes from not really knowing what it's going to look like, not knowing how the students are going to react and really how I'm going to teach."

She's not alone in feeling she's been left in limbo about the upcoming school year.

Jim Fare is a math and computer high school teacher with the Waterloo Region District School Board, and says he has no clue yet which classes he'll teach this fall.

"I'm feeling like it's going to be very, very chaotic. I feel like I'm heading into it ill-prepared again because for at least some of the courses, I will have had no hints, so far, I have had no hints as to what it is I will be teaching," he said.

"Kids and the parents in particular want things, need things maybe, to be even more prepared than usual. Everybody's looking for certainty and, yeah, we don't know what's happening."

Jim Fare, an engineer by training, teaches physics, math and computers at Cameron Heights Collegiate in Kitchener. He doesn't know yet what courses he'll be teaching this fall, and that has him feeling unprepared for a return to the classroom. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Aim to have 90% of students vaccinated

In the 2020-21 school year, the March break was moved to April and once students went on April break, they never returned to in-person learning.

At the time, Premier Doug Ford said the move was necessary due to a "rapidly deteriorating situation" with high COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations.

Ford said last week that students would return to in-person learning this fall and a comprehensive plan would be released soon, but didn't give an exact date. It's expected to be released this week.

On Friday, when asked if a potential fourth wave this fall could impact the economy and schools, Ford said the focus is on getting people vaccinated.

"That's how we're going to avoid the so-called fourth wave," he said, adding they're also building intensive-care unit capacity in the province to deal with any influx of patients.

Asked what she hopes to see in that plan, during a regular Region of Waterloo COVID-19 media briefing on Friday, Dr. Hsiu-Li Wang said vaccinations are a big part of it and she would like to see up to 90 per cent of students who can be immunized get their second doses.

"Now that delta is here, we need to aim higher" than previous thresholds of 75 per cent of people vaccinated, Wang said.

"In school environments, I expect the ministry will continue to recommend some measure of additional precautions because we have had to date a multi-layered approach to preventing spread in classrooms in Ontario and so I expect that to continue," she said.

"We will need some measure of public health precautions to help prevent significant surges in case rates that would lead to significant hospitalizations and impacts for the community."

Bruce Lauckner, the region's CAO, said parents are urged to get students who are eligible for their vaccines into any of the clinics in the coming days, including special pop-up clinics being held in some schools in the next two weeks.

He said there are other reasons for students to get vaccinated, including for volunteer or extracurricular activities.

"We're seeing more and more decisions being made by organizations about the requirement for vaccination and there's lots of opportunity to get vaccinated."

Laura Mae Lindo, MPP for Kitchener Centre, says she's hearing from people concerned about what the new school year will look like this fall. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

No plan yet 'completely unacceptable'

Opposition parties have called on the provincial government to release its return to school plan.

Laura Mae Lindo, MPP for Kitchener Centre and NDP critic for anti-racism as well as colleges and universities, said as a parent of three herself, she's "really worried" the province didn't release a plan sooner.

"For kids that are under the age of 12, we still don't know what is going to happen for them. I can tell you that it makes it very difficult to plan because we don't know if we're planning for a potential hybrid model."

She said she's hearing concerns about a "two-tiered education system" for students this fall depending on students who are vaccinated and those who aren't, and there's a potential exposure to COVID-19.

Lindo said the NDP also wants to see an increase in funding for mental health supports for students and educators, ventilation upgrades in schools and smaller class sizes.

MPP Mike Schreiner, Green Party of Ontario leader from Guelph, wrote an open letter to Ford last week and recommended the province could follow his party's plan to ensure a safe reopening. 

"It's a plan that's grounded in science and evidence and it's based on the public health recommendations and a number of experts," Schreiner said in an interview.

He said the government should have been working on improving ventilation systems months ago and should be ensuring proper personal protective equipment is available for school staff.

"We're at a point now where school is a month away. We know that we need our children back in class, with in-class learning for their mental and physical well-being, for their educational achievement, it's so important," he said.

"For them not to have a plan is completely unacceptable."

WATCH | Kitchener teachers Michelle Shannon and Jim Fare say they're worried about how students are faring during the pandemic:

Kitchener teachers worried about students

5 months ago
2:34
Teachers Michelle Shannon and Jim Fare say they're worried about how the pandemic has affected kids. 2:34

Students face educational deficit

Brillinger Tuka says she's "absolutely surprised" the province has waited so long to release its plan for the fall.

"Actually, that's a big frustration. Is it that difficult to lay out a rule that says whether they're vaccinated or not, they're going to wear masks? Whether they're vaccinated or not, children still need to have a metre or two metres between their work stations?" she said.

"Those are the things that came so last minute last year. And you would think after a full year of this, they would at least have a checklist for school boards, for administrators, for educators in whatever role they're in as to what it's going to look like."

Brillinger Tuka says most teachers go into their classroom in mid-to-late August to prepare, but she will wait until there's a plan in place so she's not redoing her work.

But she also doesn't want to have to do everything in the hours before students arrive.

"They were talking about having a plan back in May. Well, you know, it is now August," she said. "This is ridiculous."

Fare says he also hopes that the government's new plan focuses on helping students.

"Long term thinking about education does not seem to be their highest priority right now," Fare said, saying he hopes when the plan is revealed that it sends "a clear message so that the school boards can actually plan out what we will be actually doing and what the timetabling is."

"I also hope that somebody starts taking the students' learning to be one of the main issues," he added.

"It seems like in the past year, the health of the students has been the primary concern and there's been very little concern paid to their educational progress ... that's creating an educational deficit."

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