bc school restart teachers
Cowichan Valley schools opened up to more students this week. Photo by David Minkow/The Discourse
Cowichan Valley

Teachers pivot again to meet COVID-19 challenges

As more students return to class, the president of the Cowichan Valley teachers' union shares her concerns for teachers' workloads and wellbeing.

This week, the teachers of Cowichan Valley School District 79 are welcoming more of their students back to class, many for the first time since early March, as the province moves ahead with its K-12 Education Restart Plan. And even as this happens, teachers continue to provide online learning for all of their students.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced teachers to adapt to new and rapidly changing circumstances. How are they faring?  The Discourse Cowichan checked in late last week with Erica Roberts, president of the Cowichan Valley Teachers’ Union, which represents more than 600 public school teachers in SD 79. She says it’s the first time in her five years as union president a journalist has reached out for an interview.

Erica Roberts is the president of the Cowichan Valley Teachers’ Union. Photo submitted by Erica Roberts.

What are you hearing from teachers about the restart? 

“There’s still a lot of trepidation and anxiety. … Everybody has questions because the restart plan is not a one-size-fits-all.”

“We’ve been asked as teachers to turn on a dime, and now we’ve got to do both in-class instruction and remote learning, and the workload is phenomenal.”

“I encourage members: ‘You don’t have to be doing 10-to-15 hour days.’ But we’re very dedicated professionals. We love our students; we feel guilty when we can’t support them the way they need.”

“I’m very very concerned about the mental health and wellbeing of my members because the last few weeks have been very trying. So once again now we then turn on a dime and do something new and restart again. It’s very wearing on them.”

What is the rest of the school year going to look like?

“It’s literally not school in the way we have thought of school before. Goodness knows over the years we’ve been moving away from that factory model teaching — students in rows and all that. And now we have to go back to a similar thing, where you can’t sit with another student so closely at your desk and you can’t get up and move around, you can’t do group projects.”

Roberts says that the rest of the school year is a trial run for next year. “We’re going to see a roller coaster up and down of parents who send their children and parents who don’t. It could change by the week.”

“School is just going to look different for the next few weeks. And parents will have to determine through the children that go and then from what they hear from other parents whether they decide to send. And they have that ability to change their mind based on what they’re hearing.”

How has online learning gone for teachers?

“I talked to many of my members who ended up doing 10-15 hour days to make it work. Because it was Zoom meetings galore; it was learning new tech. It’s just been a lot more work than anyone anticipated, on top of the fact that working from home ended up not being ideal, because there are so many distractions for people in their own homes. … It’s been tough.”

How has online learning worked for students and families?

“Like anything, it’s all over the place. It’s worked for some and not for others. As a working parent myself — and I have been working more hours than ever just because of my position — I have struggled as a parent to do that home learning.”

“It’s good for some, but we also already have Distributed Learning within our district for parents to sign up to, if that’s what they choose. But nothing will ever replace the face to face instruction and group work and all of the social aspects that kids and teachers need. There’s nothing that can replace that. Online will never replace that.”

Why are younger students being offered half-time schooling while older grades just one day per week? 

“It’s simply because K-to-5 cannot stay at home by themselves. When you get to Grade 6, you’re of the age where you could stay home by yourself.”

It’s understandable, but “essentially they’ve made us into a daycare to help parents that are going back to work. And that’s also very frustrating because we’re educators. That’s what we do, we educate. We don’t child-mind.”

Teachers will not be introducing new concepts in the classroom over the coming weeks, Roberts says, because not all students will be attending. The focus will instead be on maintaining and bringing students up to grade level.

What is the situation for teachers who have pre-existing health conditions? 

“From what I understand, there’s been about 50 requests for workplace accommodations. Those accommodations range in need. The most extreme cases still are seeking working-from-home accommodations.”

“We’ve managed to sort out some who are able to be back in schools with accommodations, whether that requires them to wear an N95 mask or face shield, or that they have to work in isolation, which is complicated when you’re talking about being in front of students.”

What can people do to support teachers as school reopens?

“Be compassionate and understanding and not make demands. I don’t want to see parents come back and start demanding things that teachers can’t deliver. This is not normal school for the remainder of the year. This is a very pared-down version, and so parents need to understand that and be okay with that and accepting of that.”

“And the same thing for colleagues. I don’t want comparisons done. What they’re doing at Mount Prevost is very different than what they’re doing at Alex Aitken or Drinkwater or anywhere else. And those comparisons are not helpful to anybody.”

“Everybody needs to move forward with that compassionate lens, that understanding lens. … We will get to the end of the year together but it is going to take a togetherness. We all have to be working collaboratively, understanding one another and using our words and conversing because I don’t think we’re going to get through it any other way.”