Nfld. & Labrador·CBC Investigates

Schools still COVID-free, but concerns linger for some teachers in N.L. classrooms

Earlier this month, CBC Investigates sent out a questionnaire to get a sense of the experiences teachers were having, now that everyone is back in the classroom.

Questionnaire responses reveal unease among K-12 educators

(Photo Illustration/CBC News)

CBC News journalists in Atlantic Canada and Eastern Ontario teamed up to send out questionnaires to thousands of teachers to ask how they're feeling two months into an extraordinary school year. More than 2,000 teachers replied. 

Newfoundland and Labrador has remained a largely COVID-free zone, with no cases reported in schools, but some teachers are expressing unease about how well prepared the system is should that ever change.

Earlier this month, CBC Investigates sent a questionnaire to more than 2,000 education professionals across the province, asking only teachers to respond. More than 200 did.

The idea was to get a sense of the experiences teachers were having so far, now that everyone is back in schools.

Many of the respondents indicated they're feeling burned out, exhausted, and afraid, as they cope with being in classrooms during a pandemic.

Nearly half of them said they feel very or somewhat unsafe while teaching in the classroom during these COVID times.

The most concerning issue for roughly half of respondents was mental or physical health concerns for themselves or family, or the mental health of students.

More than four in five of the teachers who responded said the province could have done a better job — or did a poor job — of ensuring a safe and organized return to school.

(Photo illustration/CBC News)

The questionnaire was anonymous. The majority of the respondents added their own comments about how things were going — nearly 10,000 words in all. Here's some of what they said:

  • "It's so stressful. This is so very hard on the children and adults alike. The first two weeks of school, I cried every day. Now, I'm used to it." 

  • "It is a very scary time. Students are looking to us to see if they are safe and we do the best we can, but fatigue is setting in. It's somewhat like compassion fatigue. You are trying to manage the mental health of students at the same time you are trying to keep your head above water and support your own family."

  • "We're limited in what and how we can share resources.… It's relentless.… The day starts and there is just no time or space, or moments to catch our breath. Five weeks in and I'm burnt out like never before.… I love teaching, but this is bad all around.… I fear for the profession, for the students and my colleagues."

  • "The decision-makers responsible for the health and safety of children have failed. If a second wave hits this province — we are doomed."

Opinions contained in the CBC questionnaire should be treated differently from the results of a public opinion poll or survey. The sample of respondents is not necessarily representative of either the voting public or of teachers in the province.

CBC used publicly available email addresses that were listed on school websites to send the questionnaires. The email was sent Oct. 8, and closed to replies Oct. 12. The goal was to get feedback from teachers to better understand the experience of educating children during a global pandemic.

Classroom size, physical distancing raised as concerns 

Specific concerns raised by respondents focused on perceived safety issues: class sizes, classroom sizes and a lack of space separating everyone.

Teachers were asked how often they are able to stay physically distanced from their students when they're in the classroom. Nearly four in five replied "not very often" or "not at all." 

Only three of the more than 200 people who responded to the questionnaire said students were two metres or more apart when seated in the classroom.

(Photo illustration/CBC News)

Concerns about crowding were common:

  • "Schools are where every community business, organization, and household comes together. Right now, schools are the weak link in a community-spread prevention plan."

  • "If one case breaks out in a primary school, it will spread like wildfire! You simply cannot social distance in a primary classroom. In reality, we are safer at Walmart than in a classroom."

  • "Students are in overcrowded classrooms with no ventilation and are sitting shoulder to shoulder. Their elbows literally touch. Some teachers can't even fit enough desks in the classrooms for the students enrolled. We are fine right now. But if a case gets into a school it will be a tragedy."

  • "It is disheartening to know we are the only profession where physical distancing is not enforced. I love my job and love my students but teaching children in these conditions is beyond dangerous during a global pandemic."

In fact, three in 10 of the teachers who answered the questionnaire said they were either considering retirement or changing professions.

NLTA president not surprised by responses 

The president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers' Association was not shocked to hear those concerns.

"Our position since March has been the mantra of 'people, space, time and place.' Putting large numbers of people in small rooms for extended periods of time, with poor ventilation — well, that describes many of our province's classrooms," Dean Ingram said.

"And with that in mind, the public health measures we see in venues across the province are absolutely different than we see in our schools. So the top-line data reflecting concerns, anxiety, amongst teachers, is far from surprising."

Dean Ingram, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers’ Association, says he's not surprised by the results of the questionnaire. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

Ingram says schools require additional supports and resources, and the union wants an independent review to examine that issue.

"We need to move towards bridging the gap between what's needed and what we have at present," he said.

And while Newfoundland and Labrador is currently in an enviable position when it comes to COVID, that could change.

"We've seen tangible examples from other jurisdictions," Ingram said, citing outbreaks in New Brunswick. "In a blink of an eye, things changed very quickly."

Province announced more measures in September 

In early September, the province's education minister announced an additional suite of measures to bolster the government's back-to-school plan.

That included new virtual teaching positions, more student assistants and public health nurses, along with additional custodial staff, guidance counsellors and administrators for the system.

In response to a question at a Sept. 2 COVID-19 briefing about what it would take to ensure schools have smaller class sizes or additional space for students, Education Minister Tom Osborne said that would require a great deal of analysis.

"It's an important issue, I understand, for the NLTA and their educators, but it's a complex issue," Osborne said at the time.

The department's K-12 Education Re-entry Plan calls physical distancing of two metres "a useful public health measure" to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

"However, in a controlled school environment, where two metres is not possible between desks, the greatest possible spacing is recommended," the plan advises. "However, the daily school routine should not be disrupted to accommodate smaller classes for physical distancing."

Officials have stressed that back-to-school challenges were being experienced by jurisdictions across the country.

CBC News provided the top-line data findings published in this story from the questionnaire to the Department of Education.

But officials there said they needed more details to properly participate, and did not make anyone available for comment prior to publication.

If you work in the school system and want to let us know about your experiences dealing with COVID and the classroom, please email us at this address:

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Roberto Rocha and Joseph Loiero


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