Nova Scotia

Yearning to see their students again, but nervous about what lies ahead

Teachers and guidance counsellors are looking ahead with a mix of hope and trepidation, wondering what profound changes are coming to Nova Scotia schools when they finally do reopen.

Teachers and guidance counsellors ponder what profound COVID-19 changes might be coming to N.S. schools

Jenn Greer has been a guidance counsellor at Astral Drive Junior High School in Cole Harbour, N.S., for 15 years. She's been working out of the basement of her home. (Robert Short/CBC)

For several weeks, junior high guidance counsellor Jenn Greer had been working from the basement of her home in Cole Harbour, N.S., trying to pick away as best she could at a job that once hinged on quiet face-to-face chats with students and sit-downs with teachers.

It was about to get much harder.

Among the 22 victims of last month's mass shooting in Nova Scotia was RCMP Const. Heidi Stevenson, a fixture in the community whose son attended Astral Drive Junior High School, where Greer has worked for 15 years.

Greer's phone and email soon lit up: teens who couldn't sleep were terrified an intruder would break into their home, that someone would hurt their parents. She still carries a caseload of 40 to 50 students a week, helping them by phone and a secure Zoom health-care program.

But there is another thing that continues to weigh on her mind. Since March Break and the subsequent health protection order that shut down schools across the province, there are students who have gone silent. 

They were the kids who would stop by her office, hungry and asking for a snack, then slowly pouring out their problems. She fears calling their homes; their parents don't know they're seeing a guidance counsellor. Some don't even have the internet.

"There are some that I'm worried about," Greer said in a phone interview from her home, where she lives with her three sons, ages 6, 8 and 11, and her husband, a high school teacher.

RCMP Const. Heidi Stevenson, who was shot and killed by a gunman April 19, 2020, poses for an undated official photo. (RCMP/Reuters)

Educating more than 120,000 Nova Scotia students stuck at home due to COVID-19 restrictions is, as one teacher calls it, a great unplanned experiment that has school staff "treading water" and trying their best through trial and error.

Schools will remain closed for the remainder of the school year. Coursework is largely being completed online, by phone and through learning packages delivered to homes.

But many educators have started to look ahead with a mix of hope and trepidation, wondering what profound changes are coming to schools when they finally do reopen, and how this might reshape the way students are taught and even socialize.

How will physical distancing be practised in a class of 32 students? What about group work? Kids playing together at recess, riding on the school bus? How will schools, particularly elementaries, ever be kept clean to a COVID-19 standard?

It all seems unfathomable to Primary/Grade 1 teacher Leah Fumerton. Cleaning staff at her school, Astral Drive Elementary, are already "chasing their tails" keeping up with the multiple daily messes that come with nearly 500 children under one roof.

Children spend their days "up in each other's business," she said, and she wonders how it will be possible to keep them apart and what it will mean for playing, arguing and all that goes into learning what it means to fail and succeed socially.

"We are kind of in a place now where we want kids to be kids, but we want them to be kids with restrictions and control, so we're not letting them express themselves as kids," she said.

A boy hugs his mother before returning to class in Saint-Sauveur, Que., as elementary schools outside the greater Montreal area reopen. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

The restrictions are already becoming apparent in Quebec, which is pushing ahead with reopening schools much faster than the rest of Canada, beginning with elementaries and daycares.

Classes in that province are limited to a maximum of 15 students, and they are being greeted at the door by a staff member with a bottle of hand disinfectant. Recesses are staggered and lunches eaten in classrooms

Several European countries have reopened schools, with students queuing outside at two-metre intervals, half-full classrooms with well-spaced desks and teachers who demonstrate how to properly wear protective masks.

It all seems so alien, and yet teachers in Nova Scotia wonder if it is the new reality.

Shane MacLeod, a Dartmouth High School physics teacher, has spent recent weeks filming physics lessons, often on the porch of his home, and then posting them on YouTube for his students.

His physics labs would typically involve groups of four to six students working together. It's hard to grasp how that method of learning could survive under COVID-19 restrictions. He suspects students might have to attend school in shifts to limit the number inside at one time.

He misses school life, but worries about returning too soon.

"I'm concerned in Quebec it looks like they're rushing back and I'm concerned about the safety of students and teachers and then the fallout from that," he said. "People taking infections home and sharing it to more vulnerable groups. And what does all that look like."

High school physics teacher Shane MacLeod has been filming lessons for his students on the porch of his Dartmouth, N.S., home, including one that used a bicycle wheel to demonstrate angular acceleration. (Robert Short/CBC)

But the longer class is out, the harder it becomes for students with troubled home lives who depend on school as a lifeline for everything from breakfast programs to counselling. Others fall further behind academically.

Education Minister Zach Churchill said Wednesday there will be modules for teachers to help students who struggled with at-home learning get caught up when they finally do return to class. He added more specialist teachers, speech pathologists and psychologists are being hired.

Class numbers will likely be smaller in the fall, he said, and handwashing stations will be installed. But he said many details of how schools will function are still being worked out, and acknowledged the particular difficulties with hygiene and younger children.

"Obviously, there's going to be a big challenge there," he told CBC's Information Morning. "We're trying to wrap our heads around that with Public Health and our partners to develop a system that can potentially deal with the greater risks there."

But also emerging from the disruption of the school system are some unusual silver linings — lessons, perhaps, for what the future of education could look like. Curiously, some students are thriving like never before, particularly those with deep anxiety about going to school.

"I've heard from many kids who are saying, 'This is awesome,'" said Greer, the guidance counsellor. "'Like, I love my family, I'm happy, I'm getting my work done, I don't have to worry about X, Y and Z hurting me or saying something mean to me.'"

Her hope, she said, is that education will emerge more "holistic," that things like physical education and music will be more prominent. And that, yes, some students may be better off learning from home.

Churchill said one of the great gains during the pandemic is the improvements to distance and self-directed learning, an experience that is "going to change certain things in our education system permanently."

Jenn Greer, a junior high guidance counsellor, has a caseload of 40 to 50 students a week. She speaks with them on the phone or through a secure video program. (Robert Short/CBC)

But for many students it's hardly easy. 

Teachers say they've heard from some who are taking on more shifts at part-time jobs after their parents were thrown out of work due to the pandemic. Some have one or both parents who are health-care workers and are babysitting younger siblings.

Mike Cosgrove, a high school English teacher, finds himself writing more personal notes to students as he marks their work. Things such as, 'How's it going?'

Two of his students at Dartmouth High arrived this term from northern Italy, a focal point of the pandemic, and are living with host families in Nova Scotia. They are doing well, he said, but are lonely.

High school students are complicated and challenging. They are also hilarious and ridiculous.

"The fun of it is what I miss, yeah, for sure," he said. "The interactions, the laughter, the clowning that, you know, some of the stupid stuff, but still funny. I miss some of that that goes on."

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