Teachers say stress, anxiety dominate back-to-school experience in Manitoba

Two middle years teachers, who work in different school divisions, say they have concerns around things like maintaining safe distancing between students, class sizes and last-minute changes to class assignments as students return to class this week.

Worries about distancing requirements, class sizes and last-minute lesson plans among concerns

Empty desks are spaced apart in a Surrey, B.C., classroom. In Manitoba, two teachers who spoke with CBC say their normal back-to-school excitement has been replaced with stress and anxiety over unanswered questions about safety protocols. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Just days before Manitoba students and teachers head back to class on Tuesday, some educators still don't know what to expect on the first day of school.

"I think a lot of teachers are in a complete and total state of panic," said a Grade 6 teacher who works in Winnipeg.

"It is the most stressful start to a school year I have ever experienced."

CBC spoke to two middle years teachers, who work in different Manitoba school divisions, to get a sense of what they are feeling as they prepare to go back to work during the COVID-19 pandemic. We have agreed not to identify them because they fear they could face discipline from their employers for speaking publicly.

The Grade 6 teacher said one of her biggest concerns is trying to set up her classroom to keep the desks where her 25 students will sit at least one metre apart, as laid out in the province's guidelines for schools.

A classroom in an Edmonton school is shown in this photo. A Grade 6 teacher in Winnipeg says her classroom tables do not allow for the recommended one-metre distance between students. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

"I just could not configure my classroom in any way shape or form to keep the children away from each other by one metre," or about three feet, she said.

"They're more like a foot and a half apart."

She said she raised the issue with her supervisor, but was told, "do the best you can."

Her classroom is designed for group work and doesn't have individual desks. 

"I have to make do with nine group tables for 25 children," she said.

She worries about what parents will think, once they realize the classroom is not set up to allow for the one-metre distance between desks.

"Parents are going to be upset, because that's not what they've been told — that's not the picture they have in their minds of what class is going to look like."

Staff not counted in cohorts

When not seated at desks, the province's guidelines say students and staff should try to maintain a distance of two metres from each other "whenever reasonably possible in a school setting."

In situations where physical distancing isn't possible, the province says students should be kept in distinct cohorts, or groups, no larger than 75 kids, to limit the number of people they come into contact with and help with contact tracing if a child becomes sick with COVID-19.

The Grade 6 teacher said staff are not included in cohorts, so while students in her classroom will remain there for the entire school day, including lunch, different teachers will rotate through for different subjects. 

She worries about her students being able to sit in the same desk for an entire day, while wearing a mask for most of it.

"It's going to be a disaster," she said.

The Grade 6 teacher says hand sanitizer will only be available at the entrances and exits of her school. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

While staff and students are expected to be given at least two reusable masks, hand sanitizer won't be available in classrooms at her school, and will only be at the entrances and exits of the building, the teacher said.

Teachers were also given a bottle of disinfectant for wiping surfaces.

Teachers told to switch subjects

The Grade 6 teacher said many of her colleagues were told in June what subjects they would be teaching, only to have that changed last Wednesday, just days before kids are set to return to class.

"There are teachers that were told they were teaching English and social studies who are now math and science teachers," she said.

Normally it would take weeks or months to prepare lesson plans, she said.

"It's the kids who are disserviced by that," she said.

Enforcing the rules

A Grade 7 teacher, who works in a different school division, said as of Thursday, he still didn't know how many students are in his class, because not all parents have decided if they are sending their kids to school.

"I don't even have a range of the number of students."

He plans to take the first week of classes to educate kids about wearing masks and getting used to the cohort system, "so they don't feel bad if they wear a mask incorrectly or if they forget this procedure or that rule," he said.

A student in a suburb of Paris adjusts his face mask in a May 2020 file photo. A Grade 7 teacher in Manitoba says he plans to review mask protocols with his students when they return to class this week. (Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images)

The Grade 6 teacher said she doesn't know how teachers will monitor whether kids are following the rules all the time.

"I just don't want it to be feeling like a police state, where we're [saying] 'don't touch your face, don't do this, don't touch that, don't talk to them,'" she said.

"It's supposed to be a safe, warm, caring environment that facilitates learning, not feeling scared that you're going to touch the wrong thing or go the wrong way down a hallway."

Teachers still eager to teach

The Grade 7 teacher said adding to the stress is the fear of what could happen if someone were to get sick in the school. He said he worries about spreading COVID-19 to his family and has a grandmother in a personal care home.

"I saw her on Tuesday and I don't know if I'll see her again … because I can't," he said. "I couldn't live with myself if I passed it on."

Both teachers said despite the added stress and anxiety, they're both eager to return to teaching.

"I firmly believe that the best place for kids to learn is at school. I want to teach students, I'm excited to see my students," said the Grade 6 teacher.

"I just don't want my students or their parents or guardians to be under the impression that school is this miraculous safe haven where we're not going to spread germs."

The Grade 7 teacher said he has faith in his colleagues and is trying to remain optimistic.

"I take comfort that we'll figure [things] out, and these concerns that I have — I just hope to heck I'm over-thinking something instead of predicting."

This story was possible in part thanks to Manitobans who filled out CBC's back-to-school survey. In it, we asked parents, teachers and students to send us their top concerns and questions about the unprecedented school year ahead.


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