New Brunswick

N.B. teachers 'drained' as new COVID-19 rules add uncertainty, extra work

There have been 186 school closures in New Brunswick because of 861 confirmed COVID-19 cases since Sept. 7. Teachers sleep with one eye open, hoping they'll get word that night — instead of an hour before class — that their school will be closed.

Association says 'operational days' aren't defined, administrators have to do more work to respond to pandemic

Connie Keating, president of the New Brunswick Teachers' Association, wants the province to rethink some of its new rules to bring some predictability to how things work, and decrease the stress on teachers. (Zoom interview )

A strike, a pandemic and a shortage of backfill. 

These are just a few things teachers and school administrators have had to cope with at work in the last four months.

There have been 186 school closures because of 861 confirmed COVID-19 cases since Sept. 7.

Teachers sleep with one eye open, hoping they'll get word that night — instead of an hour before class — that their school will be closed.

Connie Keating, president of the New Brunswick Teachers' Association, said she's worried about the impact this is having on the mental health of teachers. She's not sure how much more uncertainty they can take before they reach a breaking point.

"Teachers and school administrators at this point are feeling very drained from the constant unpredictability of what they've lived through and work through this fall," Keating told Information Morning Fredericton on Monday.

The province has been adamant keeping kids in schools, both for students' own studies and mental health, but also for the health of the economy — so parents can keep working.

"It's very important for kids to be in school," Health Minister Dorothy Shephard said last week after announcing children and teens now represent the largest group among daily new infections.

How things have changed

Last year, Keating said, there was more certainty when it came to when schools would close and why. If there was a case, schools would close for a day or more. Students were also spending less time in in-person classes, so spread wasn't so prevalent.

"Our understanding, you know, last year was that there would be deep cleaning that occurred. There would be contact tracing that that occurred."

But with the rollout of pediatric vaccinations, new rules are in place. The guidelines, rolled out with the province's winter action plan, say that if there's a case, Public Health will conduct a risk assessment, advise the school and make recommendations based on multiple criteria. 

We've yet to get an absolute definition and some clear parameters.- Connie Keating, New Brunswick Teachers' Association

It puts the onus on the district to decide when to call an "operational day" closure, when to keep school going, or have a remote learning day. 

"In the event a school is required to close for an operational day, the superintendent will give the directives in collaboration with the regional medical officer of health," the guidelines say.

These rules come with two problems, Keating said: There's no consistency for when an operational day will be called, and, more confusingly, there's no clear definition of what an operational day means.

"We've yet to get an absolute definition and some clear parameters," she said. "Those kind of things would decrease the amount of stress ... for not just our schools, but for our families."

And the new way things work is adding work to already-busy staff.

"We don't have the COVID cleaners like we had last year," Keating said. "So that's being left on the custodians who are currently in school to do their regular job.

"And the other aspect is that administrators and their designates are doing a lot of support work in terms of the contact tracing as well, which would be taking away from their other responsibilities as school administrators," Keating said.

In the new plan, schools are to continue with in-person learning at every level of the plan, except in the highest level, Level 3.

Keating said all of this is exacerbated by a shortage of supply teachers. It's a problem the districts have been dealing with before the pandemic, she said. But self-isolation and COVID exposure have increased the demand without an increase in supply.

Keating said this means teachers have less planning time if they have to cover for absent teachers, and they don't have time to give attention to students who need extra help.

She said there is no quick fix, but the association is urging the government to rethink the strategy so it ensures more predictability, and include teachers and the association in the conversation.

With files from Information Morning Fredericton

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