'The challenge was real' for Nova Scotia teachers in a pandemic school year
Educators weigh in on how the issues around COVID-19 have affected them and their students
This story is part of a CBC News series examining the stresses the pandemic has placed on educators and the school system. For the series, CBC News sent a questionnaire to thousands of education professionals to find out how they and their students are doing in this extraordinary school year. Nearly 9,500 educators responded. Read more stories in this series here.
Walking the familiar halls of his Halifax high school was different this year for teacher Dereck Thibault.
With the spectre of COVID-19 looming over the entire community, its shadow altered how educators and students could interact in schools.
The pandemic meant the length of high school classes doubled, classroom layouts changed and educators had to adapt the structure and content of courses to follow health protocols, all while getting to know their students through masks.
Thibault said in addition to revising activities to keep the attention of students and ensure they were still engaging with the curriculum, teachers had to be vigilant about health. Extra tasks ranged from sanitizing desks to monitoring hallway traffic.
"It was front of mind for every teacher that our own personal safety was perhaps in jeopardy," said the Citadel High teacher, whose courses range from business technology to drama.
"It was a drain on [the] psyche that I had not experienced before. This was a year we would see colleagues in tears in ways I hadn't seen in other years. I think we adapted and things improved as the year went on. But the challenge was real and it wasn't a light one."
Majority 'very concerned' about getting virus
Thibault was one of 1,125 educators in Nova Scotia who responded to a questionnaire from CBC News asking teachers about their experiences in the 2020-2021 school year. About 16 per cent of the people who received the questionnaire filled it out.
The vast majority said they were worried about contracting COVID at work. Around 60 per cent said they were very concerned while about 30 per cent said they were somewhat concerned.
Some of the questions related to academic achievement and how it compared to past school years.
Nationally, more than half of teachers said their kids were not reaching learning objectives, but that number was about a third in Nova Scotia. About 60 per cent of teachers who replied said the same number of students as usual were meeting those objectives.
Across Canada, nearly three-quarters of teachers who responded said they were behind in their curriculum. In this province, more than half said they were "a bit behind schedule," while 16 per cent were "far behind."
Burnout was a concern for school administrators across the country and that was echoed in Nova Scotia. Nearly all the administrators who filled out the questionnaire said they were worried about it.
Timing coincided with schools closing
Unlike some parts of Canada, teachers in Nova Scotia had been in the classroom most of the school year up until the point the questionnaire was sent. But when it went out on April 26, the COVID-19 situation was changing rapidly.
- Read more stories in the Schooling Under Stress series
By then more than two dozen schools, mostly in Dartmouth, had closed due to cases connected to them. That Monday, the Nova Scotia government announced all schools in the Halifax area would be closing for two weeks in response to the unprecedented number of cases of COVID-19. The following day, the province announced all schools would shut down and shift to virtual learning, restrictions that remain in place.
In addition to answering questions, about 370 people included comments. Many expressed concerns about schools still being open amid the rising case levels. Some said the government was prioritizing the needs of students but not teachers.
Many referenced fatigue, exhaustion and stress levels higher than usual.
Some of the anonymous comments included:
"It is impossible to socially distance from four and five year olds. Yet my students are not allowed to share counters or blocks. They have not learned how to work together or with a partner or how to share, but they are jammed in my classroom on top of each other."
"Students and teachers seem to be having more mental health issues than before. We are burnt out, scared of getting sick, and feel like our government sees us as expendable."
"It is incredibly exhausting. I am worried about contracting the virus or worse, spreading it to elderly members of my family. I believe that if we have been deemed essential workers then we should also be a priority to vaccinate."
"My biggest concern/complaint is that the government did not reduce class sizes in order to properly space students within the appropriate social distancing guidelines."
"Those making decisions are safely out of harm's way therefore those decisions do not impact their own personal safety."
"If anything, I would really like the public to know that I am doing my very best trying to teach the children, and keep them safe."
Large bubble as a result of school
While many of the comments reflected frustrations, high school science teacher Krista LeBlanc said she remained amazed at how well students responded — staying home if they were sick and respecting the new rules. She said she'd never kept a Kleenex box for so long in her classroom.
LeBlanc, who is married to a teacher and has two sons in the school system, said the reality of going to work each day meant her family and her colleagues were in contact with hundreds of people each day.
"We all just tried harder. You know, it's tiring. Absolutely. But ... I won't say that we gave up at all. No, I think the kids all really surprised me, actually, with how responsible they were. They get it. They get it a lot more than we think."
Unlike last year, when the transition to virtual learning came abruptly, she said the shift this month has gone more smoothly, which she credits, in part, to having had some professional development in a week after Christmas and because staff anticipated it all year.
"We made it further [with in-school learning] than anyone ever expected. We thought if we made it to Thanksgiving, that would be great. And we did a really good job," she said.
"You could see that when the numbers started creeping up that there was a reason to be concerned. And I'm very happy now to be inside and safe."
Strong response to question about vaccines
On the questionnaire, teachers had a strong response to the idea of mandatory vaccinations for school staff, nearly three-quarters supported the idea in Nova Scotia.
Leblanc said she's hopeful most teachers will be vaccinated in the next month and that they'll be able to close the school year back in the classroom.
Though Nova Scotia's COVID case counts remained comparatively low through the school year, with the exception of a spike in November and then again in April, schools incorporated changes designed to try to keep the virus from spreading.
The length of high school classes went from 75 minutes to 150 so that students didn't switch rooms as frequently. Some schools removed lockers. Desks were spaced to keep kids apart.
Shane MacLeod, who teaches physics at Dartmouth High, said that meant fewer interactive labs and no huddles at big tables where students could work closely together. He tried to break up the longer periods by taking his class for laps around the outside of the school and shifting topics at the midway point.
He still had some classes with more than 30 students and said though most were understanding of the changes, some teenagers liked to question the restrictions, for instance why their desks could be 50 or 60 centimetres apart as opposed to the generally accepted rule of requiring two metres.
"There was definitely some of them that questioned what they saw as the hypocrisy of the rules, and the fact that there was one set of rules outside the school and a different set as soon as you walked in the front doors," he said.
Though feedback from students and parents has remained positive, he said there's a "bittersweet" element to the school year.
"Knowing that because of all the restrictions, it's not as good as we could normally make it was also hard to deal with. There's so many things that I'd like to be doing right now that would make physics so much better … it's not the best experience that I could provide."
CBC sent the questionnaire to 52,351 email addresses of school workers in eight different provinces, across nearly 200 school districts. Email addresses were scraped from school websites that publicly listed them. The questionnaire was sent using SurveyMonkey.
CBC chose provinces and school districts based on interest by regional CBC bureaus and availability of email addresses. As such, this questionnaire is not a representative survey of educators in Canada. None of the questions were mandatory, and not all respondents answered all of the questions.
(Data analysis: Roberto Rocha and Dexter McMillan, CBC News)