Teachers grappling with fear and uncertainty as return to the classroom looms

Saskatchewan teachers are wondering how schools will look and work, less than a month before returning to class.

Proposals from 27 divisions in hands of Education Response Planning Team

Elementary school teacher Jennifer Gallays and her son Adam. (Submitted by Jennifer Gallays)

Jennifer Gallays is less than a month away from standing in front of a fresh class of grade six students in Saskatoon and she's paralyzed by questions about how COVID-19 is going to change her job.

She's 44 years old, a teacher for 20 years, married to a teacher, and mother to a teacher. Gallays says she struggles with a respiratory health concern, severe asthma that she manages daily.

Her voice catches when trying to describe her feelings about going back to work.

"Trepidation," she said.

"I am kind of hoping that summer lasts forever. Not just because it's summer, but because of the fear. The fear of the unknown, the fear of going back." 

School divisions across the province are putting together their plans to get teachers and students safely together in classrooms this fall. The 27 public, separate and Francophone boards are shaping their individual plans around the province's educational guidelines released on June 9.

It's up to each division to translate the eight-page package of guidelines into a working plan for each rural and urban school.

Gallays and other teachers could learn the details of these plans this week. Or not. The boards have submitted their proposals to the Ministry of Education and it handed them to the provincial Education Response Planning Team for review and feedback.

The school boards association is not speaking publicly about the plans or what it's hearing from member boards, instead deferring comment to the response team.

The Ministry of Education and the response planning team both declined interview requests.

'Crowded spaces, confined places, close contact'

This institutional silence is frustrating to the people who will have to carry out the policy.

"We really need to make sure as a society we get schools right," said Gallays.

"Schools are super, super essential. We have to realize that without schools in place and running, a huge percentage of the workforce cannot go to work."

The school population across the province numbers in the tens of thousands of children and adults.

According to the Saskatchewan Teachers Federation, there are just over 12,000 full-time teachers, 72 per cent of whom are female and 28 per cent male. The majority of those teachers, 76 per cent, are under the age of 50.

There are another 2,899 substitute teachers.

Playgrounds will look different in a month. (Dan Zakreski/CBC)

Gallays' outstanding questions range from classroom size to who wears masks to what would happen should someone in a school test positive.

She's skeptical that schools will be able to avoid the "three Cs."

"Crowded spaces, confined places, close contact. Those are things that happen in schools all the time," she said.

"My next year is going to be 29 [students]. We will be crowded; we'll be inside and we'll be working in close contact. That's exactly our recipe to spread COVID-19."

Gallays wants the government to mandate wearing of masks in schools and to find a way to reduce class sizes. She also wants improved ventilation in classrooms.

She says the school divisions are doing the best they can with the tools they're given but she fears it may not be enough.

"I don't think they will go far enough for what needs to happen to make sure that we are not triggering a spread that will end up as a big community spread. Adults work with kids in schools and the kids go back to adults," she said.

"Do we value the economy enough to make sure that we take care of schools enough to make sure that they're not going to be having lots of issues with spread, and spread into the community?"

About the Author

Dan Zakreski is a reporter for CBC Saskatoon.


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