I’ve had many thoughts about the pandemic and quarantine and responses over the last four months, and I’ve tried more than once to put them into words. Today, I finally have some.
The Alberta government announced its back-to-school plan today, after first presenting three possible scenarios back in May. In the words of the premier and education minister, students will be welcomed back to class under scenario 1 (full days in school, no distancing or masking requirements, enhanced cleaning, no extra money). I knew, intellectually, that this would be the decision, because kids back at school means parents back at work, and parents back at work means an economic restart can begin in earnest.
I listened to the announcement with a pit in my stomach and an overwhelming feeling of dread, and when the words were actually spoken I felt nothing but trepidation. By not increasing funding to schools (sure, there’s $250m they kicked in, but that’s actually money that was promised back in 2019, so it’s not anything new), the government has basically abdicated its responsibility to students, staff and parents and said “Good Luck!”
The last three months of the 2019-2020 school year were less than ideal for almost everyone involved. Save for a select few, the transition to emergency online learning was bumpy at best and nearly impossible at worst. Though students and teachers did the best they could, ‘online school’ was fraught with tech issues, lack of engagement, poor attendance in some cases – all things that happen in brick and mortar schools anyway. There’s no question that everyone would have been better off if we could have kept schools open and had kids in chairs in front of their teachers, which is why the government’s first scenario was always the most likely.
Aside from the glaring lack of direction with respect to PPE, distancing, and enhanced cleaning and sanitizing, there seems to be very little information about how teachers and students are supposed to not get the virus. There’s obviously no way to completely prevent transmission of this virus unless we all stay in our homes for the foreseeable future. This is an impossiblity, and I think we’re all aware of that. What isn’t impossible to imagine, however, is an outbreak beginning in one classroom and quickly spreading to the entire school. If Student X is asymptomatic and passes it to 3 others in their classroom, one being the teacher, it’s very likely that other staff members will have it relatively quickly. Once the adults in the building have it, they’re passing it along in their own classrooms as well as to their own families at home.
While it’s been clear to me since 2017 that the UCP is less worried about what happens to students and teachers in Alberta’s public schools than to the paycheques of oil & gas executives, it’s even clearer now. This government has decided that the lives of your children and of the people you trust to educate them are not important enough to provide with PPE or the ability to distance from one another while in school.
The problem with all of this is that there is no concession being made for the social and emotional cost of re-opening schools. In my building alone, there are a number of teachers who are medically fragile themselves, or who are primary caregivers for someone who is medically fragile, and should not be in a building with 2100 other people for 7 hours a day. There are teachers who have young children at home, who are not only going to be exposed to the students and staff in our building, but also to the other kids in their own childrens’ schools and daycares.
Something that has crossed my mind is that I’ll have to choose between going to work and seeing my family. As of right now, my parents are in my bubble with me because I live alone and barely leave my house. Once I’m back at work on a daily basis, in a building with over 2000 other people, I don’t want to risk exposing my mother to whatever contagions I’ll have picked up from work. It’s very likely I won’t be able to be in a room with them until sometime over Christmas break, provided I don’t end up hospitalized, or worse.
The thing I’ve been trying not to think about amidst all of this is that our government has decided the deaths of school staff and students are acceptable in order to keep our economy going. I don’t know how I could keep going to work if one of the teachers in my school died from the virus. What about a student in my class? Am I supposed to just carry on, knowing that they were put in an unsafe situation by a government more concerned with economic recovery than health and welfare of the citizens?
We want to be back in the classroom with your kids, and we know you want that too. Even the most reluctant students I taught last year couldn’t wait to go back to school. It’s crucial that we get kids in front of their teachers again, and that we continue the very important work of teaching them to be active, productive members of society. We want them to participate in discussions and ask questions and show us that they’ve learned something and tell us about the fun thing they did on the weekend. We want them to build new friendships with their classmates and be part of the wider school community through extra-curricular activities and sports teams. We want to be back where we belong, in our classroom communities with the people who make our jobs so wonderful.
We want all of these things, like you do. We just want to be able to keep our students and ourselves safe, too.