Teachers say last-minute uncertainties have led to rapidly fluctuating class sizes as parents weigh the decision on whether to send their children back to class.
Some regions in Canada started classes last week, but many teachers and parents are gearing up for the official start of class this Monday — and several questions remain unanswered.
Jocelyn Haye, a French-immersion teacher in Toronto, told CTV News Channel that she still isn’t positive how many students are in her class.
“We were at capacity,” she said. “It keeps fluctuating, just because we keep getting new information from the ministry.”
She said that as new information is given to school boards from the province, it changes up plans that schools and parents had made, leading to uncertainty in class sizes.
That uncertainty can make it even harder for teachers to layout their classrooms in a way that optimizes health and safety, which can lead more parents to be unsure of their child’s safety at school and whether they should send them in or not.
“I’ve had full capacity, I’ve had ‘just kidding, not full capacity,’” Haye said. “It’s been difficult trying just to make sure my class is ready and is safe as possible for the return of all of the students, making sure they’re distanced as much as we can.
“Public Health recommends two metres, it’s just not physically possible in the classroom. So we’re just doing our best, really.”
Joy Henderson, a mother of three kids, is one such parent debating sending her children to school. So far, she told CTV News Channel she is planning to send her kids back to school, but said her feelings change day-by-day.
“It is a very anxiety-ridden decision on my part,” she said. “They desperately want to see their friends, participate in what they think will be a normal school year, as much as I’ve tried to set their expectations that things are going to be very different.”
She said she’s heard from other parents who are still trying to decide.
“Their decisions waver day-to-day. It’s that touch and go. Myself too. One day it’s: ‘Okay, I don’t know what’s going to happen, maybe I’ll keep them [home],’ one day it’s not,” she said.
Rising case numbers for COVID-19 across the country are a big concern as schools open their doors again. Ontario and Quebec, the two provinces hit hardest by the virus, have been seeing an uptick in daily case numbers throughout September.
“Day-to-day we’re seeing — in Toronto, in Peel, in Ottawa — the cases are high and they’re getting higher,” Anjum Khan, a mother from Mississauga, Ont. told CTV News Channel. “So of course you want to give the kids the best possible chance to be safe, but with just that many bodies in a room, when it’s in the community like this, it’s just kind of the perfect storm.”
Khan is not sending her four and a half year old back to school. She said that they made the decision “a couple of months ago,” and that she only briefly considered sending her daughter when officials were indicating that smaller classes and more distancing would be possible.
“There was a little hope in the middle when they said that they were going to cohort them,” Khan said. “But none of the things that they said have really come about and I’m not seeing anything particularly reassuring right now for us to make that leap to send her just yet.”
In London, Ont., high school art teacher Christine Buechler is hoping that more students don’t get put on her roster for the year.
Her classroom is packed to the gills, she said.
Exactly one week ago, she thought her classroom situation was going to be very different. Last Sunday, she told CTV News Channel that she was going to be utilizing two classrooms, keeping her art supplies in her original, tiny art classroom, and having students themselves in a neighbouring classroom. This solution would’ve allowed students more space, but it wasn’t a long-lived idea.
“After examining everything, realizing that I can’t really teach art in a classroom that doesn’t have access to water […] I had to make my original classroom work,” she told CTV News Channel.
She removed every piece of furniture that wasn’t essential, and traded the tables students to use to sit in groups for smaller, individual desks.
“[We] have the kids now socially distanced by a metre, as much as we could,” she said. “Every last inch in my classroom is used — not a single spot left for another student, so I’m praying nobody gets added.”
Haye believes that teachers in Ontario simply need more time, “just to make sure we’re really prepared.
“There’s so many unanswered questions, in terms of even the rehiring of custodial staff for high-traffic areas. Are those going to be cleaned appropriately? Are we going to have the nurses in our school, we don’t know, so there’s just too many unanswered questions from the ministry to open just yet.”
On the parent side of things, Henderson said the lack of clarity from the province is one of the things making it hard for her to be confident in sending her children back to school.
“I want to see what so many of the doctors and experts are advocating, which is small class sizes where it’s actually possible to physically and socially distance,” she said.
“I woke up this morning and looked at my Twitter, and it’s just filled with doctors saying ‘this is not okay, this is not safe,’ and I don’t understand why the Ford government continues to listen to one or two voices when you have a mountain of doctors and experts and epidemiologists saying like: ‘No, this is not a safe plan.’ We can see the numbers rising daily, so I want to see some definitive action on the Ford government, not just a pause, not just a: ‘Oh, we’re going to refigure the classrooms and the cohorts as we get more numbers.’ I want to see leadership, really.”
On the other side of the country, Linda Kwan, a high school teacher in Vancouver, is feeling more optimistic than some of the Ontario teachers about the official start of her school year on Monday.
“We had the students come in on two different days, Thursday and Friday, and we gave them an orientation about health and safety,” she told CTV News Channel. “I met my classes, every one of them, in socially distanced numbers during those two days. And I’m now communicating with them online in Microsoft Teams.”
At her school, they are going to be using a split model of virtual and in-class learning, where students spend some days at school and some at home learning remotely. This strategy means that at her high school, they’ve been able to achieve a smaller class size, something health professionals have been saying is essential for reopening.
“The majority of our staff, I think, are ready,” Kwan said. “There’s going to be a few bumps along the way, especially in the first couple of weeks trying to figure out the logistics, having the kids come in at the right time, but because of our hybrid system, they are remote, and they’re also in class, and they’re flipping back and forth.
“Our maximum class size is 15.”
In Buechler’s schoolboard, students had to choose between a full-time virtual school experience, or returning to physical school full-time.
Despite the stress — and, for some of them, the wish for better management by their province — all three teachers expressed that they were excited to see their students, and that they would be doing their best to make sure everyone was safe.
“I just want my students to know that we are there for them,” Haye said.
“We are there for them mentally, we are there for them academically, and regardless of how the school looks when they get there, they’re just going to be as supported as they can be by everyone in the school. And we’re very excited to see them, we haven’t seen them since March!”
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