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Teachers say bittersweet goodbye to an Ontario school year like no other

As the final week of school wraps up, some Ontario teachers are exhausted from a year unlike any they've experienced before —and they still have many questions and worries about September amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Questions remain about how school will work in September amid the COVID-19 pandemic

Kindergarten teacher Nancy Hanna reads to her students over Google Meet. (Submitted)

When Nancy Hanna said goodbye to her Kindergarten students this week, it didn't feel right.

She says June is usually a wonderful time of celebration and closure — but ending Kindergarten over a Google Meet just isn't the same.

"You feel unsettled," said Hanna, a teacher at  Dunlace Public School in Toronto. 

Meanwhile, Cindy Law was emotional watching her Grade 12 students drive through a parking lot of cheering teachers to pick up their graduation caps, taking care to physically distance as they went.

"Our heart was breaking for these Grade 12s," said Law, her voice cracking with tears. "You take for granted how important face-to-face communication is," she said, referring to months of teaching students online due to the novel coronavirus.

As the final week of school wraps up, exhausted Ontario teachers say goodbye to an unparalleled year of challenges — while still wondering and worrying about what will happen in September amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Teachers cheer as students drove through to pick up their grad packages during a physically-distanced graduation event at William Lyon Mackenzie Collegiate Institute on Wednesday. (Laura Howells/CBC)

Between strikes over education cuts, work-to-rule and virtual classes, this was the most "extreme year" of Constance Marsh's 28-year career.

"We were all in tears; we didn't know what we were doing," said Marsh, who teaches Grades 3 and 5 at Sheppard Public School. 

Her colleagues wrestled with Google Classroom when schools shut down after March Break, Marsh says, and her students had no motivation to log on.

"It was awful."

Constance Marsh, an elementary school teacher at Sheppard Public School, had a tough time figuring out Google Classroom and online teaching. Marsh and her colleagues shed a lot of tears during those early days, she says. (Submitted)

Teachers were abruptly forced to figure out online learning when schools closed to curb COVID-19, often struggling with a dramatically different form of teaching while caring for children of their own at home.

As a high school teacher, Law was pulling at least one all-nighter a week to prepare online lessons, while parenting two grade-school kids.

Meanwhile, some of her students were also working part-time jobs or taking care of family members during COVID-19, said Law, who teaches science at William Lyon Mackenzie Collegiate Institute.

"My heart just aches for what could have been a great year, but just turned out to be one of the most emotional years of my teaching career," said Amos, who teaches at McKinnon Park Secondary School in Caledonia and is a single mom to a seven-year-old son.

School boards prepping 3 plans for September

After a tumultuous semester, it's still unclear what September will look like — which makes planning difficult for teachers.

The province has told school boards to prepare for three scenarios: a full return to class with safety measures; continued online learning; or a blend of both.

Cindy Law sits by her makeshift 'whiteboard,' which she made by taping a Dollerama tablecloth to the wall. Law teaches science at William Lyon Mackenzie C.I. in Toronto. (Submitted)

Education Minister Stephen Lecce is emphasizing that blended model for September, where smaller groups of students would alternate between in-person and online learning. 

Lecce said teachers will have a full day of training for online learning before school starts. Speaking on CBC's Metro Morning Thursday, he emphasized added funding for school boards, which will represent a two-per-cent increase.

Unprecedented challenges, and incredible hardship. But also, innovation, flexibility, resilience and creativity. There has never been a school year like this one and while some may be relieved it's finally over, uncertainty about September looms large. We ask Education Minister Stephen Lecce what's to come. 9:48

"We want this to be safe, we want this to be positive, we also recognize it's going to be a tough start. So we have to make those investments," said Lecce.

But Hanna doubts a mixed model could work in a "realistic and safe way" — and says it seems like Lecce doesn't understand what happens in an elementary school class.

"There are just so many moving parts," said Hanna, pointing to diverse needs in every classroom and new safety measures that will be tough for young kids to follow.

"I don't see how it would work."

Teacher Mark Kinoshita took this photo just before leaving for March Break. He didn’t know he would spend the rest of the school year teaching science online. (Submitted)

Marsh doesn't blame the provincial government for the challenges and uncertainty. However, she doesn't think one teacher could manage both online and in-class learning.

"Realistically one teacher couldn't do all this," she  said

New math curriculum with 'not enough notice'

The new school year will also mean a new elementary math curriculum in September, the government announced Tuesday.

"It's not enough notice for teachers," said Tracy Walters, who teaches Grade 7 and 9 at Tecumseh Senior Public School in Scarborough.

She says teachers shouldn't be expected to train on a new curriculum during their summer break.

Walters says staff will need more support in September. She wants to see a clear plan from school boards and government for how the new school year will work, focused on the well-being of staff and students. 

If kids are back in class, she'll also have to figure out child care for her one-year-old son.

"When you don't know what's going on in September, you can't really plan."

Tracy Walters, a teacher at Tecumseh Senior Public School in Scarborough, had to juggle online learning with caring for her one-year-old son. If kids do go back to class, she'll have to quickly figure out child care. (Laura Howells/CBC)

Mark Kinoshita actually "had fun" playing around with live science lessons during COVID-19 — although it took about eight hours to make an hour of live lessons.

Kinoshita said his department at North Toronto Collegiate Institute has been scrambling to catch up with government announcements.

"[The] lack of information that's passed down has been the biggest stressor on our department for the last three months," he said, adding that scheduling timetables will be a massive challenge in a hybrid back-to-school model.

Lecce says boards will have more money for areas like mental health, technology, enhanced cleaning and special education.

But Hanna says the new funding and promise of 37,000 new laptops doesn't amount to much when broken down among the school boards.

Ontario Minister of Education Stephen Lecce speaks during the daily updates regarding COVID-19 at Queen's Park in Toronto on Tuesday, June 9, 2020. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Rachael Amos feels teachers are well supported for the upcoming year, but says it's students who will need more support with online learning.

"The kids were thrown into this without a lot of training on how to access even their email," she said, noting that many of her students at McKinnon Park Secondary School in Caledonia have poor access to running water and Internet.

As a single mom to a seven-year-old, Amos said in an email, "there were very few days we both got all our work done" as she and her child tried to share a laptop.

School boards planning for September

The Peel District School Board says staff will be creating plans to support staff, students and families.

"Staff will continue working through the summer so that we're ready," said Ryan Bird, spokesperson for the Toronto District School Board.

The Toronto Catholic District School Board says they are doing surveys to help guide their final plans. Professional learning sessions are available for those teaching primary and junior summer school, said spokesperson Shazia Vlahos, and teachers can sign up for additional qualifications.

In the meantime, Hanna is closing her Google Classroom for the summer —  but hopes to see students in-person again soon.

"What happens in the classroom is a really magical thing," said Hanna.

"It's not something that is easily transferable to the online forum." 

About the Author

Laura Howells is a journalist from Newfoundland who is currently reporting in Whitehorse. She most recently worked as a digital reporter and radio producer in Toronto. You can reach her at laura.howells@cbc.ca and follow her on Twitter @LauraHowellsNL.

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