Back to school: Teacher says “Hope for the best, but plan for the worst”

The publishers of The Current asked me to be part of their back-to-school series, and I am pleased to have my writing published alongside Hayden Smith and James Di Fiore. I enjoyed Hayden’s positive piece, and I appreciate his desire to return to routine and socialization with peers. I also understand James’ reluctance to send his children back to school in light of the uncertainty surrounding return-to-school. Editor’s note: This is the last in our back-to-school series. For the student’s perspective see Back to school (or not) by Hayden Smith.  James di Fiore discusses home schooling in Back to School – a parent’s perspective.

When I last wrote about education, Ontario students and teachers were starting emergency distance learning. Now, we are preparing for the first day of class, which could be as early as tomorrow or as late as mid-September depending on jurisdiction and grade level. I am a secondary teacher in Ottawa, so on September 14 – six months and one day since I was face-to-face with students – I will meet Cohort A of my classes. On the 15th, I will meet Cohort B. Above: the author ready to meet his students (photo Mark Woermke)

Teacher COVID training

I have been at school since August 31 spending my days masked (all employees must be masked when at work), sitting alone in my classroom, tuning in to Google-meets, watching training videos and completing learning modules. A few highlights include earning certificates in applying and removing PPE and handwashing; receiving training for an online platform which will provide students and parents with all the notes, assignments and resources needed for my course in case of quarantine; exploring a new report card and gradebook software; and learning about Trauma-Informed Transitions (giving rise to a rather unfortunate acronym).

I am impressed with the amount of thought and work that has gone into the planning at the school board and school levels for learning and for the safety of staff and students, and I am pleased to see that folks in education (at least those who know something about working or learning in publicly-funded schools) are working together.

Classroom lessons

My biggest question – What am I teaching? – was answered September 1. That is the latest I have ever received my teaching assignment, but schedules had to be modified after 25 percent of our student population opted for virtual learning. That prompted the Ottawa Student Transportation Authority to change bus routes which delayed our school start by a week. So, I have all next week to plan my classes. That’s probably more time than I have used to prepare for the last three years combined.

For me and my students, the first semester will be divided into two “quadmesters.” Students will have two classes per quad – one in the mornings for 150 minutes and one of the same duration in the afternoons. Each class is divided into two cohorts which will attend school on alternating days. My morning students will have assigned seats and my afternoon students will be assigned different seats and all the desks will be sanitized over night for the next cohort. Washroom breaks will require signing-out and signing-in. Seating plans and sign-out sheets are required in case a student or I test positive. Ottawa Public Health will need it for contact tracing. No one will be issued a locker and there will be designated entries, exits and travel patterns throughout the school.

Protective measures

All staff are issued two disposable medical grade masks per day and optional face shields will be available when the order arrives. I am glad I ordered my own personal supply of face shields back in April. If we have to supervise a sick student, gloves and gowns are available. As I walked through the office yesterday, I saw a pile of corrugated cardboard barriers that I was told will go on student desks. They reminded me of an old voting booth I used for “time-outs” when I taught elementary school. Back then, I ordered misbehaving students to the “isolation chamber.” Now everyone has their own isolation chamber and may want to stay in it.  One plexi-glass sneeze barrier will be issued to every classroom to be used at the teacher’s discretion. That’s a no-brainer:  it is going on my desk. A large container of 70 percent hand sanitizer has appeared in my room for everyone to use on entering and exiting and to fill up their personal bottles, and like at the gym, spray bottles with disinfectant will be available to spray down equipment (like the photocopier) after use. I have already ruled out paper handouts in my classroom and I will only accept student work if it is submitted electronically. Now I won’t know who comes from a household of heavy pot or cigarette smokers – I used to be able to smell the smoke off of some student essays. As for maintaining a two-meter distance; I never did like people too close, and I am glad I teach senior grades. With the new rules, no students or colleagues will look hurt this year when I asked them to step out of my personal space.

Cooperation needed for success

It is going to be a year like no other, but I am glad to return to the classroom to start what is likely my last school year. I am happy to play my role in this experiment to get students back to school, parents back to work, and ultimately get the province back to something closer to the old normal. We are watching the experience of other jurisdictions, like Quebec, to see how their return-to-school pans out. In Ottawa, many federal government workers have been told they will be working from home until 2021 and I wonder if that is because the government is waiting to see if the return-to-school can be sustained. Many folks, some from medical professions, have told me that they expect a dramatic rise in cases in the fall and that schools will be shut down again. I am certainly no epidemiologist, but it strikes me that the notion children don’t get COVID-19 as easily as adults could be attributed to the fact that schools and day cares were the first institutions to close worldwide and children didn’t get sick because they were isolated in their homes.

The success of our return-to-school depends on students, parents, bus drivers, educational assistants, custodians, teachers and school administrators doing their parts. We all have to assess for symptoms each morning; keep our distance; wear masks when we can; wash our hands; and sanitize surfaces in order to be able to sustain the return-to-school. Generally, I am confident that we will be successful, but it will only take a few folks who are careless, desperate, or unwilling to follow the guidelines to put everyone’s health at risk and jeopardize the success of this project. They might cut corners or even send their sick kids to school or attend work themselves when they are ill. Readers might think me cynical, and they would be right. Seeing folks in stores in the Bay or Ottawa without masks, not socially-distancing and shopping in groups despite store policies and health advisories to the contrary, has confirmed to me that we can’t count on everyone. I am also reminded of an anecdote.  My cousin, who drove a school bus in Renfrew County for a number of years, was confronted one morning by a mom who followed her son to the bus. “You may need this before you get to school,” she shouted as she launched a roll of toilet paper. “Johnny has the shits.”

Inside the teacher bubble

After work on Monday I met with a group of teacher friends with whom I worked in the 1990s. Even though I knew we would be socially distancing, I was actually a little reluctant, since the tight social circle or bubble I have maintained for half a year is exploding. You see, my Vice Principal told me Ottawa Public Health permits me one hundred student contacts. Even if I don’t hit that number, the fact remains that school cohorts, social circles and family bubbles are all converging in a manner reminiscent of public health messaging from the height of the AIDS crisis: my contacts’ contacts are now my contacts too.

Back to my teacher friends. I am glad I attended the event. I had a great time and learned that I am now the sole member of the group who is not superannuated. One member of the group, who actually started teaching after me, was celebrating her very first day of retirement. Because she was going to teach kindergarten and their daughter and son-in-law who live with them are also elementary teachers in different schools, her husband started referring to their home as a “COVID-19 gumbo.” (He’s Cajun.) Since she also has an elderly parent for whom she is the primary contact, she decided to pull the chute and retire. I suspect there are many across the province who are contemplating this or have already made the decision.

Hope for the best, but plan for the worst

When I was a kid, the end of summer was usually marked by a shopping trip to Pembroke for two shirts and two pairs of corduroy trousers. In 1973, my dad and I made our first visit to the Pembroke Mall, which was still under construction, and I added a pair of burgundy Adidas Gazelles to my back-to-school kit. (They turned my feet red on the first day of school.)  Back-to-school shopping is still a tradition for me, although more recently, I have limited myself to a new necktie and a package of the pens I like from Business Depot. This year, there are no shirts, cords, shoes or ties; not even any pens. My 2020 back-to-school shopping has focussed on canned goods to re-stock my quarantine caches, hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes for home and classroom; and an up-dated will and powers-of-attorney. My purchases reflect the attitude which has determined my pandemic response (and served me well) since February: hope for the best, but plan for the worst.


One comment

  1. Joanne Olsen

    Mark….only you can still bring smiles to our faces as we deal with these crazy, uncertain times. Thank you for sharing and thank you to all educators who are heading into the trenches….on behalf of my 4 year old grandson who is absolutely over the moon about starting school in his spider man mask, thank you.

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