Sask. teachers speak up about leading a classroom through a pandemic
Safety concerns, lack of resources and challenges building relationships with students creating more stress
For Grade 12 teacher Jason Stein, instructing during the COVID-19 pandemic is "like having the Sword of Damocles [impending doom or disaster] always over top of your head; you don't necessarily always consciously think about it all the time."
"When I'm in school and teaching and interacting with students, it's not there. Then you see something and you're like, 'Oh yeah, what if?'"
Something like a student missing from class: Are they sick? Did they expose the entire class?
Stein teaches a variety of subjects at Turtleford Community School, in the small community about 85 kilometres northwest of North Battleford, Sask.
When Stein spoke with CBC in the middle of January, his class was at level two of the province's Safe School Plan, which meant students were in class, cohorting and wearing masks.
He said if a student were to test positive for COVID-19, his class would transition to level four of the plan, which means every student would immediately move to online learning.
That's what happened to Stein's wife, who teaches younger students at the same school. She was called four days before the winter break with a head's up about just that.
"It happens very quickly and there's not a lot of recourse or time to sort of reorient yourself," Stein said.
Teachers' reflect on a year in flux
Teachers have been on the frontlines of COVID-19 from the beginning, working essential jobs that have changed forms multiple times since the first cases hit Saskatchewan in March 2020.
Schools closed early for the 2019-2020 school year, a measure the provincial government took to reduce the spread of COVID-19. In June, the government announced schools would reopen for the new year in the fall. But exactly what that looks like has been in near-constant flux.
While organizations like the Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation have been vocal about the pandemic's impact on teachers and what they'd like to see done to help them, little has been heard publicly from those leading the classrooms themselves.
Nearly two dozen teachers from around Saskatchewan responded to a questionnaire CBC Saskatchewan has available online for people to share their pandemic experience.
They wrote about lacking the resources they felt they need to handle the added pressures, from the steep learning curve associated with teaching virtually to sanitizing their classrooms.
Worries were expressed by and for those who are immunocompromised and how COVID-19 could impact them, and some called for additional measures from the government to protect teachers in classrooms.
Some were concerned about the impacts online teaching would have on relationship-building — an essential part of their job — and their mental health and that of their students.
And many shared their love of teaching and how they were trying to make the best of a very difficult situation.
WATCH | Two teachers, one working at school and one from home, walk us through a typical day for them:
Stein said two of the biggest things he's noticed as a result of the pandemic are resource gaps and a shift in the social construction of his school.
Getting in-class tech issues resolved takes longer, he said — a symptom of greater stress on those with that knowledge, created by the addition of online learning. Stein said someone might be unable to help with a fix for a week, "whereas pre-pandemic, it was maybe a day."
"That changes the quality of in-class instruction as well and so we're just not in an optimal situation right now."
For the time being, he said the Turtleford Community School has restricted access to some areas for certain age groups, essentially creating an elementary, intermediate and high school situation in what is normally a kindergarten to Grade 12 environment.
Stein said students are used to being encouraged to interact with those in different age groups and frequently participate in activities with those younger and older, but this year was different in the sense that there isn't a sense of community that there normally is.
That extends to the staff he said, who are now eating their lunches alone in classrooms while educational assistants are relegated to the staff room to ensure physical distancing.
"One of the things that I've started to do is at least once a week I make a concerted effort after school to go and visit the other wings of the school, just to remind myself that, yeah, you have other colleagues that are here," Stein said.
The little interactions, like the staff room discussions or the face-to-face time with their peers were essential to ensuring there was cohesion in kids' learning, he said.
Staff are still participating in group meetings and discussions, albeit via video-conferencing.
But working to find ways to encourage a cohesive learning environment in the age of COVID-19, he said, creates extra work for educators.
"That working to find ways to replace the old things is that added level of stress that teachers are feeling," Stein said.
'I wish I could just reach through my computer and help them'
Not being able to be there in person for her students, has stood out as a particular challenge for Miranda Hammett.
"I know when I'm having kids who are struggling, I've always said that I wish I could just reach through my computer and help them," the Grade 3 and 4 teacher with the Regina Catholic School System said.
"Sometimes it's really hard to problem solve when I'm in one room and they're somewhere across the city in another."
In a typical classroom setting, she would be able to pull those students who aren't engaging as much aside and have face-to-face conversations with them, where that isn't as likely to happen now. Some choose not to turn their cameras on.
Online instruction wasn't as foreign to Hammett as it may have been for other teachers.
She completed her education program online with the University of Regina last spring due to the pandemic. Hammett said those experiences, paired with a week-long crash course in online education before the school year started, prepared her, in a way, for this year.
"I was a little bit nervous to take my contract on, especially with it being an online contract, but overall it's been a super positive and super great experience," she said.
One advantage the pandemic provided, she said, was the absence of developing a classroom space — something she said first-year teachers would have to balance alongside creating content and developing education plans. She said it allowed her to focus more on what she's teaching and how she's teaching.
But relationship building, an important aspect of teaching and something Hammett learned how to do in-person through her education, was a concern.
Before she told the students what they were going to be learning for the year, she prioritized getting to know who they are as people — their likes and dislikes and other information they were willing to share with her.
Being online has made me love my career and made me so happy with what I've chosen to do with my life.- Miranda Hammett
For students between the ages of eight and 10, Hammett said her students have become surprisingly adept at the technology they're required to use.
In some cases, she said students were teaching her how to use various aspects of the programming.
When tech-related frustrations do come up, Hammett said it's time for a "brain break."
"We take our mind off what's frustrating us and then we get back into it and I'm going to re-explain it, I'm going to re-show it to them and hopefully the second time around we're walking in with a clearer head."
Teacher not worried about kids' overall educational outcomes
Stein said the teachers he knows would much rather be educating entirely in the classroom and where possible, it's being done.
But all of the little things, like losing face-to-face conversations or interactions with students, kids losing out on extracurricular activities, tech issues and resource strains, are contributing overall to a decline in the quality of the education, Stein said.
Still, he feels that in the grand scheme of things, the COVID-19 pandemic probably won't have a negative impact on most students' educational outcomes overall, as students will always be able to find a job they want to do and take the appropriate steps to be able to reach that goal.
"In that sense, I don't think that educationally, the students' are going to lose out," he said.
Hammett said although the pandemic impacted her personal mental health — there are plenty of up-and-down days — teaching online through COVID-19 has taught her to appreciate in class learning, whenever that happens.
"Being online has made me love my career and made me so happy with what I've chosen to do with my life. But it's definitely going to be easier to make relationships and to teach and everything else [in-person]," she said.
This article was produced thanks to submissions to CBC Saskatchewan's COVID-19 questionnaire. We want to hear how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted you. Share your story here.