Kindergarten students are not very good at physical distancing. Even if they were, it wouldn’t be good for them.
That’s just one of the things in the back of Carolyn Howe’s mind when she tries to keep her students at Victoria’s South Park School engaged – but safe – in her classroom.
“It’s challenging … trying to figure out that line between supporting their social and emotional development and not wanting to traumatize them,” she said. “Not wanting to teach them that you can’t share, versus wanting to make sure we all stay safe. That’s been a hard line to walk.”
Roughly one year into the COVID-19 pandemic, B.C. teachers are feeling the emotional and physical tolls of the ongoing restrictions, both in their classrooms and in their mental health.
Students returned to schools on Sept. 8, 2020 after the sudden cancellation of in-class instruction the previous March. Precautions included learning groups (60 students for younger grades and 120 students for secondary schools), physical distancing, hand washing, cleaning and physical barriers.
Concerns were there from the get-go. The B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) filed an application for the Labour Relations Board to look into working conditions, citing concerns about inconsistent and inadequate implementation of safety measures.
Standardized testing – administering the Foundation Skills Assessment during the pandemic – has also been a point of contention.
In February, mask rules were expanded in schools – mandating face masks be worn by all middle and high school students except when they are eating or drinking, at their own desk or workstation or when there is a Plexiglas barrier separating them. The expanded rules came after dozens of school exposures in the Lower Mainland.
This came about a month after the BCTF issued an online survey for teachers working during the pandemic. Responses from roughly 4,100 B.C. teachers indicated the vast majority (83 per cent) had experienced worsening mental health. About 75 per cent of male teachers and 85 per cent of female teachers said their mental health had worsened a lot or somewhat since COVID-19 arrived in B.C.
Winona Waldron, president of the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association (GVTA), says many teachers are struggling.
“You feel like you’re responsible for ensuring that everybody that you come in contact with is safe…. It’s this constant vigilance that I think is devastating on people’s mental health,” she said. “I feel like many of our members are in crisis … I talk to a teacher in tears on a daily basis.”
Waldron said teachers want transparency around data and exposures and better access to counselling. She said a more consistent mask mandate would also take some of the stress off educators, who have to enforce complicated rules and exceptions.
For Waldron the gender-based results of the BCTF survey are also notable.
“Our workforce is predominantly women and they are predominantly feeling the brunt of the ongoing pandemic,” she said. “Women continue to do the majority of the emotional labour, and that is just at such a heightened expectation right now.”
Sitting in a tiny chair in her classroom, Howe, who is also the GVTA vice president, echoed Waldron’s concerns. She said she’s seen more burnout and extended leave among colleagues. Many tell her they experience regular insomnia.
“I think the resilience of all of us is down,” she said. “Ten months a year (teachers are) carrying the needs of their class with them all the time. The psychological weight of thinking about these humans that you work with and their needs – that’s always there. This year, it’s much harder to cope with.”
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– with files from Katya Slepian and Ashley Wadhwani.