GUEST POST WRITTEN BY A SURREY TEACHER WHO WISHES TO REMAIN ANONYMOUS.
At the end of November, I received the following in an email from a parent of a student in my class: “I would like to inform you that we all got tested positive with COVID 19. I did call the office already to let them know about it.” Their kid hadn’t missed a day of school prior to testing. I began freaking out, not only because I was exposed, but also because I had been a failure to fill during the week, meaning that there was no TTOC to cover my absence, which resulted in multiple non-enrolling teachers rotating coverage in my room for blocks at a time over the days I was away.
(The TTOC I had originally booked was ordered to self-isolate over the 2 weeks as they had worked at Cambridge Elementary, which was one of the Surrey schools that had to self-isolate due to an outbreak. Also, having been a school on the Fraser Health exposure list, we have noticed we’re having difficulties getting TTOCs to come to our school and have had many, many failures to fill over the weeks, resulting in non-enrolling teachers being pulled from counselling, learning support, library, etc. to cover classes. Not only are students losing out, but I feel these teachers and cohorts are at a greater risk of more exposure.)
The office, although they had received the call from this parent, hadn’t told me “due to confidentiality”. Why are we trusted with so many other confidential personal and medical documents for our students, but not this? I was told I wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone about this. I agreed that the student’s name should be kept confidential, but couldn’t we at least share that we knew we had had an exposure in my room or the school? I was told I needed to wait for Public Health to do their job. With the known delays in Public Health’s contact tracing, this was not reassuring.
This is when my mental health took a turn for the worst. I immediately went to a COVID-19 testing site to get tested, then went home to self-isolate while waiting for results. That night, the news of another Surrey school, Newton Elementary, self-isolating due to an outbreak hit the news media. My colleagues at my school began sharing their anxieties and fears, promising that they would tell each other if they ever heard of any news at our school. “I would tell as I want to protect my colleagues. I feel it’s my moral obligation.” Due to fear of being disciplined, I stayed quiet.
I felt so isolated and powerless. I was scared of getting COVID. I cried all day Saturday. All weekend I didn’t leave my bedroom. I received my negative results, but those came with no relief. Anxious thoughts about it spreading in my room ran through my head. I have had parents straight up tell me they won’t test their child as “it’s just a cold”. I have students share they are still visiting with others outside their household despite health orders.
The “exposure” notice spanning 3 days was sent to our school staff and families over a week later. My students received an additional “self monitoring” letter 2 days later, stating that we needed to monitor for symptoms for 2 weeks, of which only 5 days were left.
A few days later, I was told that a parent of one of my students had tested positive. The parent asked if they could still send the child to school. How a child is not deemed a close contact is beyond me but the school managed to convince the parent to keep the student home. This student sits beside the other student who tested positive and I can’t help but wonder if perhaps they are asymptomatic and transmission is now occurring in my classroom. They only sit half a meter away from each other after all, as my class is maxed out with almost 30 kids.
A few days after that, I was alerted that another parent of a student of mine has tested positive and the student will be self-isolating. This is a student who rarely wears a mask as they are not mandatory in schools.
Both these cases will not count as official class exposures as both times the students were never tested. As the science shows that students tend to be asymptomatic, how can we be so sure there wasn’t an exposure and there isn’t transmission happening in my class?
That evening our school received another exposure notice. My letter stated it was not in my classroom, but as teachers know, there are no cohorts during recess and lunchtime play. Students are often mingling during these times, often without masks on.
Just before driving to work the next morning, I received an email from our band teacher that they have been identified as a close contact to someone who tested positive and must now self-isolate for 2 weeks, with an exposure date of 11 days prior. This teacher was just playing wind instruments with my students the day before. My anxiety skyrocketed. I called my mom in a panic on my way to work, contemplating several times if I should/could make a u-turn and go home. My mom said it shouldn’t be this way, “you shouldn’t be worried about your health and safety every time you go to work.”
I tried to do all I could to keep me and my students safe throughout the day. Encouraging masks be worn. Encouraging the washing of hands. Keeping my window and door open. Despite that, I had someone come into my classroom and state that it was “too cold” in my room and move to shut the door. I protested, stating it was a layer of protection against COVID-19, but they still insisted it only be open a crack. I was so upset and felt unsupported.
I drove home crying after work. I began feeling nauseous and had a headache, and while I knew it was probably stress and anxiety related, these are also symptoms on our daily health checklist and so I couldn’t help but wonder if it might be COVID. When I got home, my partner could immediately sense something was wrong and wrapped me in a hug. He urged me to stay home. I tried to explain how guilty I felt, like I was abandoning my students. Eventually, I booked the day off, but I don’t feel good about it as I’m afraid I will be a failure to fill again. I will be going to get another COVID test, just in case.
I am so upset that we are being put into this situation. There are MANY teachers going through similar things that I am. The winter break can’t come sooner. But will it be enough to recharge our mental health, especially when nothing is changing? As you can see from my experience, there are so many issues that our government is failing to address, including an increase of failures to fill, delays in contact tracing, transparency of positive cases connected to schools, cohorts mixing, overcrowding in classrooms that don’t allow for physical distancing, inconsistent mask wearing, and mental health. Teachers’ mental health is deteriorating at a rapid pace. They are sick of being told to access counselling for it. Counsellors can’t protect us and our students from contacting COVID-19.
I’m sorry. I don’t know why it’s not okay for you to hang out with 30 of your friends at a house party, but it is okay for you to be in a classroom with 30 students you don’t know. I’ve tried all summer to get an answer to this question for you and have not succeeded.
I also don’t know why you have been organized into cohorts that are supposed to stay separated, but it’s okay for you to hang out with friends from other cohorts at lunch. As long as you stay one meter apart. Or that may be two meters. I really don’t know because I also get confused when I listen to all the announcements.
I’m also sorry that, while you’re attending school this year, you can’t visit or be with your grandparents or your cousins or your best friend or the person you’re dating. I’m especially sorry that you have to switch out the people you care about from your bubble and replace them with your peers at school. I know you’d rather be with the people you are closest to, but this is the new reality.
You know how we’ve often talked about things that don’t make sense but that we have to do anyway? This is one of those times. The rule is that you can’t have house parties, so don’t. Don’t start the year getting into trouble with public health officials.
That would not be a good way to start your final year of high school.
I can imagine that when you started kindergarten in 2008, graduating during a pandemic was not anywhere on your radar. But here we are.
What I do know is that you’re going to be okay.
In each of your families, there are stories of relatives who have survived challenging times. You are the descendants of people who survived armed conflict, genocide, displacement, slavery, apartheid, hunger, and other struggles that may still be ongoing.
Remember when you interviewed older relatives for the Intergenerational Project? Remember how surprised you were to learn how difficult and challenging your relatives’ lives had once been?
Now, life’s lottery has dealt you a pandemic.
In addition to other difficulties you may be going through, have gone through, or will go through this year, you’ll be ending your school career during a pandemic.
But just as your relatives survived and thrived, so will you.
You got this.
For the past 4 years in high school, you’ve been riding the turmoils that being a teenager brings. Heartbreak. Lost friendships. Knowing so much about some things and not enough about others. But you kept on learning. You kept figuring things out.
Graduating during a pandemic is another thing you’ll figure out.
School is going to look different. Not everything that you had at school in March is going to be back in September. You won’t be able to hang out anywhere you want with whomever. But you’ll still be able to connect with friends through Snapchat and Tik Tok and InstaGram and … probably a new app you’ve already been using that I don’t know about!
Depending on how many students are in the classroom, you may not be able to do any group work at all. This is a big adjustment for me as well – you know how much I love group projects! The main reason I do is because I know that you learn so much more when you’re talking to each other instead of listening passively to a lecture from me.
The good news is that we’ll still be having brain breaks! We have to organize a system to ensure all the racquets and bats and balls and frisbees for brain breaks stay clean, but we’re going to be outside a lot. Make sure you’re ready to go outside, no matter the weather!
Really, you’re going to be okay.
During your lifetime, a lot of news has been dreadful. When you were born, in 2003, the US invaded Iraq. In 2002, Canadian troops were deployed to Afghanistan. You grew up knowing what ‘terrorism’ is. You know how destructive a tsunami can be. You have watched the devastation wrought by hurricanes and wildfires and earthquakes. But you have also watched how people came together and worked tirelessly to save lives, to fix what was broken, to make a difference.
You too have helped whenever there was a need to raise money and awareness so that a wrong could be made right. I am constantly amazed at your dedication to being the change you want to see in the world. You have joined with teens globally to participate in climate strikes and to protest racism and injustice. You are not okay with the status quo – you want a better world. And I know you’re going to make sure it happens!
This is why I know you’re going to be okay.
Remember all those Core Competencies Self-assessments you’ve been completing since Grade 8? Remember how you had to show how you had been communicating effectively and how you’d used your critical and creative thinking skills? Guess what? Those are the same skills your relatives and ancestors used to get through all the harshness that came their way.
Think about all your strengths that you wrote about in your reflections on your Personal and Social competency. You’ve already demonstrated that you can not only take care of yourself, but you can also overcome all kinds of obstacles and challenges.
You absolutely have got this!
As your teacher, I promise that I’ll do all that I can to help you navigate through this most unusual graduation year. One of the skills we’ll be spending time on is what I call “dung detection,” but what is more formally called Digital Literacy, so that you can figure out the signal from the noise all over the internet. It’s a skill that you’re already using as you try to make sense of all the mixed messages coming to you about the climate crisis, and the virus.
Digital Literacy may look like a different set of skills than those that your relatives needed in order to survive during other times. But at its core, it’s still about learning how to succeed in the world by knowing how to sift through a ton of information for what’s useful and relevant to you.
I promise to make sure that your time in my classroom is spent developing skills you’ll need not only for this year but for many years to come. And I’ll make sure that while we’re learning, we’re also doing the things that keep us feeling good and being well.
Teachers fully understand the importance of school for children and teens and we want to teach students in classrooms, face-to-face. What we don’t want is to risk our lives in order to do our jobs.
I’ve not heard of any teacher dying from a flu they caught at school. No teacher has died from being around students who have measles or mumps.
Covid-19 is not in the same category as the flu as we’ve been told for months so please don’t tell us something different now.
The reason education assistants, teachers, vice-principals, and principals have concerns about the Restart plan is because we are the adults who actually spend time with children in schools. We know what students and schools are like. We are not pontificating about the importance of schools from an air-conditioned office while relying on memories of school from decades ago.
It’s infuriating to have to listen to lectures on the importance of school for students’ mental health when every teacher knows about dozens of students who have suffered because of a lack of psychologists and counsellors in schools for decades.
It’s infuriating to hear about schools being important for students’ health as long as Adopt-A-School has to exist to provide for schools what governments fail to.
It’s infuriating to continue to be ignored when we voice our concerns based on our professional experience and knowledge. We’re treated as though we are idiots when many of us have Master’s degrees and decades of experience in classrooms.
We are being gaslit at a time when our skills should be utilized in order to create the safest situation for students.
The least effective way to ensure students’ social and emotional health is to create distress in their teachers by ignoring our valid concerns. We know what we are talking about.
For weeks now teachers have been receiving newsletters from the Ministry of Education that tell us in one way or another how important schools are for students. After the first few I started to get a visceral reaction whenever I saw one in my Inbox. I couldn’t quite articulate why until the latest newsletter stated:
Global research tells us that school closures disrupt the learning process and long-term outcomes of students. The adverse effects can go beyond learning loss and include implications like food insecurity or loss of access to health services that can be potentially harmful for students. As educators, you play a significant role that reaches beyond the classroom in children’s lives …
This one was the last straw.
To explain the impact of these newsletters, we need a second definition for the term ‘gaslighting’.
The original meaning refers to emotional abuse where the victim is made to question their sense of reality.
What the Ministry of Education is doing is more like political gaslighting.
It’s as though teachers have not struggled for decades to get the attention of governments about the needs of students in schools.
As though we did not forgo salary increases in order to ensure there was class size and composition language in our contracts so that students would get the supports they needed.
As though we did not spend 14 years in a legal battle with the government to regain the class size and composition language that was stripped from us.
As though we have not decried the uselessness and emotional cost of the Foundational Skills Assessments that the BCNDP promised, while in Opposition, to end.
As a teacher, I would feel less anxious about schools reopening next week [edit: in September] if the Public Health Office expressed confidence in a return to in-school instruction after they had conducted random checks of a sample of schools in a range of socio-economic areas to see first-hand the facilities that public schools in British Columbia actually have.
Restaurants are regularly inspected to ensure that meal preparation is hygienic and safe; all businesses frequented by the public know that their facilities have to be in safety compliance or their reputation will suffer and they will lose clients. Public schools in B.C. seem to exist in a different category when it comes to health and safety.
It’s only recently that there has been progress toward seismic safety but ongoing problems with mice infestation and the lack of drinkable water in many schools seems to be an inconvenient truth that we should all just learn to live with.
For almost two decades under the BC Liberals, there was little money for failing and inadequate infrastructure. It’s understandable that the current BC NDP government cannot reverse the damage of decades of neglect within a short time.
That neglect was at best tolerable during the Before times. But then Covid-19 came along and shed blinding sunlight into the darkest of health and safety corners within the public education system in B.C.
Like many people in B.C. I’ve been riveted to regular Covid-19 updates by Dr. Henry. I admire her calm demeanor and steadfast handling of an unprecedented crisis. I have been especially impressed by the way she responds when concerns are raised about the number of people lining up to board a ferry or the number of people enjoying the sun at a local beach.
She refuses to fan any frustration that some may feel at the apparent violation of her orders. Instead she expresses confidence, backed by data, that people are in fact following her orders.
Dr. Henry is reasonable and expects people to be as well. She has instructed the Ministry of Education to ensure that schools are safe for students’ return. I’m sure she expects that the Ministry of Education will be reasonable in its execution of her orders.
The problem is that teachers have vivid memories of the Ministry of Education being anything but reasonable. Whether it was when they demanded concessions to our collective agreement in recent bargaining or when they ignored pleas for more funding for students with special needs, being unreasonable has been the Ministry’s default setting for quite a while.
For years teachers have said that it’s not reasonable to expect students to learn in hot and stuffy portable classrooms; that it’s not reasonable to expect teachers to spend their own money on supplies for their classrooms.
And teachers know that it’s not reasonable for the Ministry of Education to expect that after decades of cuts to budgets that there will be enough money in each school district to ensure that all Dr. Henry’s protocols are followed.
Covid-19’s presence has led to the opening of the government’s purse in ways unseen since the Great Depression with many programs available to support various sectors of society during this challenging time.
So where’s the money for schools?
In fulfilling Dr. Henry’s orders, how does one ensure thorough hand hygiene when taps have to be held down to get a 4-second spurt of cold water?
How will overworked, skeletal custodial staff manage with the much longer list of cleaning tasks when they barely had enough time for cleaning classrooms during the Before times?
In BC we can expect that any hospital in the province has standardized facilities to protect the health of patients and staff. No such standardization exists in BC schools.
Whereas one school may have a mice infestation and warnings posted at drinking fountains not to drink the water, another school may have ergonomically designed classrooms with beautiful bathrooms in wide hallways, lots of natural light everywhere, and easy access to outdoor classrooms.
Teachers all across the province know that, in some schools, it will be easy to follow all the guidelines for a safe return to school but in too many schools it will not be.
When all schools have lead-free drinkable water, when all school washrooms have taps that don’t have to be held down in order to work, when all schools have fully-functioning ventilation systems, then we can be confident in there being reduced opportunities for viruses to spread when we return to schools.
That would take money though. And the education budget, as a percentage of our GDP, has been kept low by both major political parties when they’re in power.
In the Before times, the impacts of regular reductions to education budgets have been borne by students who have fallen through the cracks in the system.
In this time of a pandemic, the impacts of neglected infrastructure could spread well beyond classroom walls.
In the spirit of the season of peace and goodwill, let’s talk about being friends again, shall we?
But first you’ve got to reconfigure BCPSEA.
Their actions as your bargaining agent with teachers do not reflect progressive values about public education.
I would have expected a BC Liberal government to demand concessions at the start of bargaining, not you.
I would have expected a BC Liberal government to continue Foundation Skills Assessments, certainly not you, after the many years you agreed with teachers about the FSA’s inefficacy.
It’s the style of the Fraser Institute to promote ideas like the prevalence model of funding, turning students’ learning needs into probability statistics.
The last thing I expected was all this from a BCNDP ministry of education.
And then there’s the matter of our Supreme Court of Canada win.
For 14 years you stood by our side as an ally in our legal fight against the stripping of our Constitutional rights.
And then, when teachers won, instead of acknowledging that struggle, you claimed the court-ordered hiring of 4,000 new teachers as your government’s idea.
It hurt so much that for the longest time we did not want to even look at our win from your point of view: your new government was saddled with the bill for the actions of all BC Liberal governments since 2002. You had to spend a billion dollars to clean up the mess that you did not make.
I now acknowledge that, and the spending on seismic upgrades, the opening of new schools. Smaller class sizes and more schools are good BCNDP achievements for public education in our province.
But, can we talk about being the lowest paid teachers west of Quebec?
Can we talk about recruitment and retention with a bargaining agent that shares our values of public education being a sacred trust, of public education being the heartbeat of every community, of public education being about all of our futures?
These are values we believed you shared with us, the teachers in public schools in BC. They do not seem to be the values shared by the current configuration of BCPSEA.
So, in this time of season turning, of endings and of new beginnings, let’s be friends again … after you’ve realigned BCPSEA with BCNDP values.
In the classrooms at my school, students who get a $60,000 car for their 16th birthday sit next to students who walk an hour each day to and from school because bus-fare is an unaffordable expense. Students who go home to their own bedrooms equipped with the latest technologies, collaborate on projects with students who don’t have a bed to call their own. And students who struggle to read a sentence in the third language they’ve had to learn grasp desperately for meaning when their fluent peers speak.
The conceit of public schools is that our classrooms will somehow be the levelling space of these stark socio-economic differences through the provision of an equitable education.
Teachers who spend an average of $1600 on classroom supplies each year do so in the hope that the right resources will magically bridge the chasm between what is funded and what is needed.
Stories of families who have had to sell their homes in order to pay for learning supports for their children are heart-wrenching. Now just imagine what happens to those children whose families have no such assets, whose parents are simultaneously battling the legacies of colonialism and poverty.
Because public schools are often the only places where marginalized people can access support, insisting on classroom composition language in teachers’ collective agreement should not be seen as a luxury the government cannot afford. Especially not a government boasting about billions of dollars in surplus.
It’s astounding that a government that launched a Poverty Reduction strategy to great fanfare continues to ignore calls for more funding for public schools, the very places where the 20% of children who live in poverty in BC get their only meal most days.
As a party in power, there must be at least 50 ways you can make billions of dollars disappear from where they’re supposed to be: delivering services to people. You could go the brutish route of Doug Ford in Ontario and slash billions from public health and education services.
Or could do it the Christy Clark way, smilingly, while she introduced legislation that would effectively remove four billion dollars from education funding over 15 years.
This latter strategy is a rather legally cumbersome way to disappear education funding though. It took the BC Liberals a lot of maneuvering through the legislature and the courts over a long period. And in the end, the Supreme Court called foul.
Besides, mimicking the BC Liberals shenanigans could not be your first choice because you campaigned on a platform to fully support public education, not to undermine a collective agreement with teachers. Definitely would not look good.
You’re in a tricky situation because you spent 15 years in Opposition, criticizing the short shrift that teachers and students in public schools were getting from the previous government. Over and over again you promised that you would do better, provide more funding, and fully support students with special needs.
But the accountants have declared that keeping your promises would cost about a billion dollars more than you have currently allocated for students’ education. That’s a lot of money. You have other priorities.
Back in 2001, when you last formed government, education funding comprised 20% of your budget. But things have changed.
But you can’t just blatantly state that there’s not enough money for education.
Your base would be enraged. They voted you in on your public service platform and they want to see results.
To be fair, you have increased funding by 12.4% for Level 1 Special Needs. That’s good news for 570 students. Level 2 funding (affecting 22,352 students) was increased by 4.1% and Level 3 Special Needs funding was increased by 4.6% for 8,390 students.
You are well aware that there are thousands more students who need learning support. They’re the ones who fell through the cracks over the 15 years when a lack of school psychologists meant that waits for a diagnosis averaged 3 years. A lifetime in a child’s development.
You know that your meagre funding increases do not even begin to address the impact of inflation on costs.
But $5.7 billion is such a big number. It sure looks like it should be enough.
You hope that parents don’t notice that the money allocated for education is actually only 11% of your total 2019/20 budget. They might begin asking questions about why you don’t invest more in students.
This would be an awkward question to answer. You know for your political image that you need to make it look as though you are increasing funding, even though you have no intention of doing so.
So, you announce that a group of experts will review the funding model. Thanks to the Supreme Court win, most parents are well aware that the model was drastically changed in 2002 and so they will have some familiarity with what was lost.
And, through the work of parent advocacy groups, many parents will also know that what was restored still left too many gaps for too many students.
You do not include a single teacher on the funding review panel.
It would be inconvenient for teachers to be represented there where they could remind everyone of how, throughout your tenure as the Official Opposition, you consistently agreed with teachers when they called for significant increases in funding .
You could do without teachers raising a ruckus when they discover your plan to implement a funding model that will essentially turn students into statistics.
You know that many parents may not have the time to study the details of the new funding model. You know that some may feel intimidated by convoluted statistics and you know that you will need a slick way to get the public to think that prevalence funding is the way to go.
You know that terms like “accountability” and “equity” are popular with the public.
You don’t want any of your supporters to remember that “accountability” is exactly the reason Christy Clark gave for stripping teachers of their contract, leading to the loss of 2500 teachers within the system.
So long before you begin bargaining with teachers on a new collective agreement you start a stealth marketing campaign, ensuring that there is a widespread belief amongst the public that the current collective agreement with teachers is the reason that students are falling through the cracks and not getting the services and supports they need.
The message is spread that the newly-restored class size and composition language in the collective agreement is too restrictive, that it hamstrings school districts in their provision of services to students.
You would like parents to believe that if only teachers were more innovative, and more flexible, all students could have their learning needs met. You want parents to believe that it’s not the lack of funding for supports that’s the problem: it’s teachers’ lack of flexibility, creativity and empathy.
You would prefer that the public not know that teachers gave up salary increases from 1988 until 1994 in exchange for the establishment of minimal supports for students.
You would prefer the public not to know that the concepts of inclusion and integration are not new to teachers. That their commitment to inclusion goes far beyond any government policy.
You’d rather the public believe in the prevalence model even though it abdicates your government’s responsibility for delivering the public service of education to all students in public schools, regardless of learning difficulties.
You don’t want the public to ask questions about who collects the data that the prevalence model demands. You don’t want the public to ask about what parameters will be used to interpret the data.
You don’t want the public to know that “trends” in public education are hardly ever captured by statistics. If they were, thousands of parents would not be clamouring for more schools to be opened in areas where “statistical trends” decades ago predicted that no schools would be needed.
You don’t want the public to know that the map is not the territory, that no amount of statistics gathering can replace what teachers know is happening in their classrooms to students whose names they know.
But teachers can let the public know.
There are at least 50 ways to show parents what’s actually happening with education funding.
Just as in a shell game, those who watch carefully know under which cup the object is.
We’ll show parents where the billions disappeared.