'An enormous responsibility': COVID-19 through the eyes of Grade 3 teacher Emma Boswell

As 2020 draws to a close, CBC News spoke with Islanders who've played a pivotal role in the lives of others throughout the pandemic. Meet Emma Boswell, a Grade 3 French immersion teacher at West Kent Elementary School in Charlottetown. 

'It almost, like, stops you in your tracks if you think too much about it'

Grade 3 teacher Emma Boswell records a read-aloud from home during the province's initial shut down in mid-March. (Submitted by Emma Boswell)

If you spoke with her high school teachers years ago, Emma Boswell says they would likely tell you they never expected her to enter the teaching profession. 

But if you spoke with Boswell herself now, you wouldn't be surprised she's currently teaching Grade 3 French immersion at West Kent Elementary in Charlottetown. 

Even through a phone call, her quick wit, gentle humanity and raw honesty is apparent as she reflects on what her life has been like since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down Island classrooms in mid-March, only reopening them this fall. 

"I actually made a joke about it," she told CBC News. "I jokingly said in a group [message] to my staff that if we shut schools down or had to do online learning, I was going to quit. 

"I very quickly went back and said, 'I don't really mean that,' because I realized I may be eating my own words in the future.'"

'Double the work'

As COVID-19 crawled its way across the globe, public schools on Prince Edward Island shut their doors on March 17 and eventually switched to online learning.

There's ... not a single one of us who doesn't come to work remembering the importance of what we're doing and the responsibility of it.— Emma Boswell

"I was devastated," said Boswell. "Maybe 'shock' is probably a better way of putting it."

"I guess I just didn't see it getting to that."

Suddenly Boswell was forced to figure out a way of teaching 8- and 9-year-olds online, and in a second language. 

"I had to make almost double the work, because I had to explain to parents what it was I was asking the kids to do in English, and then create the lessons in French," she said. 

Teaching from home

Boswell quickly realized that creating virtual lesson plans wasn't the only uncharted territory she would have to navigate.

Boswell says her cat, Spencer, wanted to get involved in teaching from home. (Submitted by Emma Boswell)

"It's very different face to face with a child," she said. "You want to still create a healthy boundary between the fact that they are still your students, even though they're at home and you're at home." 

Boswell recognized she wasn't the only one dealing with the additional stress of COVID-19. And with that, she said she had to learn to keep her conversation with her students "human" while maintaining those boundaries.

"Sometimes, especially in the pandemic situation, you're having conversations with people that are pretty raw," she said.

But Boswell there were pleasant aspects to working from home, like being able to take walks on her lunch hour. 

Boswell said the most difficult part of the pandemic for her has been the uncertainty. 

First, officials planned to reopen schools April 16 — but that date ended up being delayed almost five months. 

Having to plan to start up in September with no certainty over whether that might change at the last minute if an outbreak happened?

"That was very, very hard."

Few complaints from students

Public schools on the Island eventually re-opened the second week of September. Arrow stickers were plastered on school floors, maximum capacity signs hung outside bathrooms and, again, there was no other option than to adjust. 

Boswell put a poster on her car that translates in English to 'I miss you' during a West Kent Elementary staff drive-by parade in June. (Submitted by Emma Boswell)

"It's unbelievable how resilient and adaptive [students] have been and for the most part, with almost no complaints," said Boswell.

"Obviously, some of the things were harder for them to process, like not being able to see some of the other kids in the other grades."

Boswell said she has had to remind herself what she can control and what she can't. 

"You're not the one who decides whether they're at school or not. So that's not my responsibility," she said. 

'Enormous responsibility'

As someone entrusted with keeping so many children safe during a global pandemic, Boswell said she tries her best not to focus on it.

"It's an enormous responsibility and it can be almost like freezing," she said. "It almost, like, stops you in your tracks if you think too much about it. At least, for me it does."

Instead she's taking it one day at a time, thanking those at her school and remembering that she's not the only one working to educate children in the face of the pandemic. 

"There is not a single teacher, administrator, staff member…  not a single one of us who doesn't come to work remembering the importance of what we're doing and the responsibility of it."

With the holidays finally here, Boswell said she has been looking forward to a break.

"I'm just really excited to have a little bit of time, because it has felt absolutely like non-stop," she said. "It feels almost like it hasn't stopped since March." 

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