Montreal

Exhausted Quebec teachers say public health guidelines are unrealistic and hard to follow

What's happening inside Quebec's classrooms? An exclusive questionnaire reveals teachers are exhausted and struggling to stay safe.

Testimonies from across province paint vivid portrait of what's happening inside classrooms

Grade 2 teacher Nancy Poirier washes the desks in her classroom in preparation for the new school year at the Willingdon Elementary School in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

It is only two months into the school year, but hundreds of Quebec teachers say they are already exhausted and often unable to follow the public health guidelines laid down by the government.

CBC Montreal received written testimonies from nearly 800 teachers last week as part of a questionnaire about their working conditions. They were provided anonymity in exchange for their participation.

The statements offer a portrait of a system under severe strain from the effort to provide baseline education while keeping students and staff protected from COVID-19.

"I feel like I'm going 100 km/h on the highway in a car I don't know and I have to read the instruction manual at the same time," said a high school teacher in the Laurentians with more than 20 years experience.

Dozens of teachers described feeling intense anxiety about shouldering the twin responsibilities of protecting themselves and their students.

"Mondays are especially difficult (nausea, upset stomach etc...)," said an elementary school teacher in Montreal.

Some teachers said it was difficult to refuse a hug to a child who needs it. Overall, they said students respect the guidelines at school, though. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

The teachers also described working long hours of unpaid overtime to help students with online learning, the discomfort of wearing protective equipment and the hassle of disinfecting teaching materials before rushing to their next class.

"Very often, we don't have time to go to the bathroom," said an elementary school teacher in the Eastern Townships.

Several teachers said they have opened the windows in the classrooms, citing concerns about the role poor ventilation could play in the transmission of the virus.

But they also wonder how long that will be viable as temperatures drop — "I'm FREEZZZING," wrote one Montreal high school teacher.

'It's very difficult to refuse to give a hug'

Under provincial rules, students no longer change classrooms during the school day, part of an effort to limit their contact with other students.

Given distancing can also be difficult in staff rooms, some teachers have struggled to find space to do corrections and prep work.

"Teachers are eating lunch in their cars. We have no air," said a long-time elementary school teacher in Quebec City.

Several teachers said even though the school year is still young, they feel as tired now as they normally would at Christmas, or by the end of the school year.

"I'm concerned about the exhaustion of the teachers who have to bear all these changes," said a high school teacher in Montreal. "It's hard to interact with students who are wearing masks. We can't hear their answers or their questions."

But despite all the added effort, the teachers who responded to the questionnaire said it was difficult to maintain one of the central rules aimed at keeping them safe: staying two metres apart from their students.

A majority of teachers expressed unhappiness with the government's management of the back-to-school plan and with Education Minsiter Jean-François Roberge himself. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

In all, 1,577 teachers completed the CBC Montreal questionnaire. Just 20.5 per cent said they were able to regularly maintain the required distance from their students.

Those findings echo results from similar questionnaires that CBC sent to teachers in eastern Ontario, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick.

Of the 2,000 teachers who responded to those surveys, more than 70 per cent said physical distancing between students in class happened not very often or not at all.

In Quebec, the teachers who completed the questionnaire said they were unable to do so either for pedagogical reasons, or basic empathy.

"In order to help my students and give them the best service possible, it is impossible to stay two, or even one-metre apart," said a high school teacher from Abitibi-Témiscamingue.

An elementary school teacher in the Montérégie said: "It's very difficult to refuse to give a hug to a child who needs some human warmth."

When students are inside school, teachers said, they largely respect public health rules, which, for high school students in red zones, includes wearing masks in class.

But many teachers also expressed concern about how closely students followed guidelines when they leave school grounds.

"The kids all vape standing next to each other. So all our effort is for nothing. But they do wash their hands several times a day, and so do we," said a high school teacher in Chaudière-Appalaches, which has some of the highest infection rates in the province.

More than half of Quebec's 3,000 schools have registered at least one case of COVID-19 this fall. According to government figures, there are currently 2,305 active cases among students and staff.

Government measures unpopular 

CBC Montreal provided a summary of the survey results to Education Minister Jean-François Roberge's office, inviting him to comment on the findings. His office has not yet responded.

A similar questionnaire circulated by CBC Montreal just prior to the start of school in August found widespread dissatisfaction with Roberge, himself a former teacher, as well as high levels of concern about his back-to-school plan.

The second survey was sent to the same list of 9,957 education professionals, which CBC Montreal compiled from publicly available email addresses.

Large number of teachers, 65 per cent, once again expressed unhappiness with the government's management of the back-to-school plan.

In their comments, teachers accused the government of placing unrealistic expectations on them, of issuing often vague or contradictory directives and failing to provide additional resources to help with online learning.

"I'm unsatisfied with the public comments made by Minister Roberge. He seems far and disconnected from our milieu," said an elementary school teacher in the Eastern Townships.

Some teachers, though far fewer in number, offered a more positive assessment of the government's performance.

"I find that things have gone better than I thought they would before the start of school," said an elementary school teacher in the Montérégie.

WATCH: | Epidemiologist Kate Zinszer explains how researchers are trying to find hidden COVID-19 cases in Montreal's kids

Finding hidden COVID-19 cases in Montreal's kids 

2 years ago
Duration 2:03
A research team is collecting blood samples from youth to test for the presence of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies, to try and get a more accurate count of how many kids and teens have had COVID-19.

But there are nevertheless widely shared concerns about the effects of the pandemic, and the new learning environment it requires, on the development of Quebec's youth.

Students were repeatedly described as more agitated and stressed, and less attentive overall.

"The level of students this year is significantly lower compared to other years. There are big learning gaps. I have never seen so many failed assignments in my whole career," said an elementary school teacher in the Eastern Townships with more than 20 years experience.

Methodology

On Oct. 19, CBC Montreal/Radio-Canada sent a bilingual questionnaire to 9,957 email addresses that were listed on Quebec public school websites. The questionnaire closed on Oct. 22. A total of 1,942 people completed the questionnaire. This is a breakdown of their roles in the education system:

  • 1,577 teachers.
  • 37 administrators.
  • 105 support staff.
  • 13 guidance counsellors
  • 146 education specialists.
  • 79 other.

Of these, 28 per cent indicated they worked in the English-language system and 72 per cent indicated they worked in the French-language system.

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