‘It is completely different’: Teachers describe difficulties preparing for back-to-school

By | September 6, 2020

TORONTO — Teachers around the country are struggling to plan for unknown timetables, class sizes and situations ahead of an unprecedented first day of school amid a pandemic.

The challenges range from facilities unfit for the new health regulations to the simple fact that teachers don’t know what to expect.

In London, Ont., one art teacher has had to move her entire classroom between two rooms in order to accommodate the amount of students she has with the requirements of physical distancing.

“I’m nervous about what my day is going to look like, because it is completely different from what I’ve been doing for 29 years,” Christine Buechler told CTV News Channel.

The high school art teacher said she only just got her schedule on Friday, and still doesn’t know what her “daily timetable” will look like.

Compounding her problems is the very landscape she works in.

“I teach in a rural high school that’s over 150 years old, with four additions on it, so every part of the school is different,” she said.

“My particular part of the school does not have air conditioning. I have a very tiny classroom that, at best, when I’m four at a table, can accommodate 21 kids. I have 24 in my current classroom.”

Smaller class sizes and good air circulation in a room are essential to keep students and staff safe during COVID-19, but it’s a struggle to achieve in some regions.

Buechler said it’s required a lot of creativity from the principal and the school to work with what they have.

“So we’ve actually been moving furniture, taking furniture out of classrooms,” she said.

Her own tiny art room is going to be used as a large supply closet to keep the art supplies in, while students themselves sit in the classroom next door, which used to be the “fashion room,” she explained.

“So I’ll be going back and forth between those two rooms to try to accommodate the social distancing, but social distancing is very difficult in our school,” she said.

That’s true in newer schools as well.

On the other side of the country, Linda Kwan is preparing to teach high school English in Vancouver again in these strange circumstances.

While she’s excited to see students, she’s also “a bit anxious.”

“I’ve been chatting with my colleagues the past few weeks about their feelings as well. Some of them are downright scared,” she said.

She has taught briefly during the pandemic, when students were allowed to optionally return to in-person classes in June. But back then, the number of students comfortable enough to return when it was optional was very small.

“I’m afraid to put too much effort into planning without first seeing my students and how many actually show up and what it’s going to look like,” she said.

Kwan doesn’t have to contend with an older building, and says her classroom is “not that small,” but even while she was moving desks around, she could see how difficult physical distancing was going to be.

“Our back-to-school plan is a hybrid of face to face and also remote, so this reduces our class size to a maximum of 15,” she said.

“But even with […] all the desks physically distanced, I could only fit 12 in there, and I was kind of having to stand close to them, to my whiteboard. I’m worried about just the congestion of the bodies and the bags and all that.”

Many teachers still don’t know how many students to plan for, particularly those in areas where a split model of remote and in person learning is going to be used.

Deborah Buchanan-Walford, a teacher from Toronto, Ontario, is one such teacher. She’s also nervous about how the rules will affect her particular students: adults in the high school system.

“A lot of what is said for students in high school is the same for us, which is not really the best seeing that they are adults and they have different needs,” she said.

Her students will be coming in on “certain days of the week,” and then do the rest of their work online.

“So that’s going to be a bit of a challenge, to coordinate, again, with adults who have work and kids and other things to juggle, to make sure that we do the best for them to get the curriculum the same way, as best as possible.”

She pointed out that communal spaces of schools are not allowed in many plans, such as cafeterias or break rooms, adding more complications, particularly for students with conditions that require accommodations.

Across numerous provinces, teachers feel let down by individual back-to-school plans. And now the bulk of responsibility for making back-to-school work is resting on their shoulders.

Kwan, like Buechler, only received her schedule last Friday, despite working in a different province.

“I’m still trying to digest it and see how this is going to work and it’s a bit overwhelming.”

Buechler feels that Ontario’s plan simply came out “just too late.

“We weren’t involved as teachers, and that made it difficult. But now we have to figure out how to make it work in our classroom, and I just don’t feel like we were given enough time.”

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