Editor’s Note: The following letter is republished with permission. It’s an amazing piece, from the perspective of an educator, not just from the perspective of those who sit in an office, and make decisions about things they know in theory, but not necessarily in practice. And I believe our readers need to hear what the author has to say.
As a parent, I am in total agreement with her. I will not be sending my kids to school come September. I had already made that decision, but this letter put perspective on some key points that I had not even thought about. I feel many parents may also not have looked at the entire picture. And to make an informed decision, you need the whole picture.
Dear Mr. Ford, Mr. Lecce, Board Trustees, MPPs, and Parents of students:
I’d hoped to be able to succinctly summarize my thoughts on the situation surrounding Ontario’s return to school for the 2020-2021 school year. Unfortunately, the immensity of the situation does not lend itself to a synopsis of key points, so bear with me.
I am a teacher with experience in elementary and secondary education, both public and private, in Ontario and elsewhere in Canada. I’m also in the position of being a parent whose eldest child is due to begin his education career this September in Junior Kindergarten. I’m viewing this through both lenses – parent and educator.
I will start by stating my current situation. I have been on parental leave since December 2019 with the intention of returning to work in September so I could start the school year with my students. This plan has changed. I have chosen to continue parental leave until December 2020. I do not have pre-existing health conditions nor do my immediate family members. Despite this, I feel the return-to-school plan as it is materializing does not meet the safety needs of students or staff and I am unwilling to be a guinea pig, or to allow my 4 year old son to be a guinea pig.
The response I see from many parents is that they want a full-time return-to-school model. In reading the OCDSB’s parent survey results, it was obvious that “cleaning protocols” and “clear expectations” were of primary concern. Likewise, survey questions posed by the UCDSB survey asked parents, “What practices need to be in place to meet your expectations for sending your child(ren) to school?”. Options provided included frequent hand washing and sanitizing throughout the day, increased cleaning of shared spaces, maintaining physical distance, etc.
I take issue with these types of survey questions and options due to their vagueness. They focus on the what, but not the how. The options provided in the OCDSB survey were especially vague. How respondents interpret these options will vary greatly as will the interpretation by those determining next steps based on the survey results. This poses the problem of parent/student/staff feedback being misinterpreted and therefore return-to-school plans not aligning with their actual needs. The responses within the UCDSB survey, though more specific, lead respondents to assume that those options are actually possible to implement effectively.
This brings me to the bread and butter of this letter:
I am worried that parents are assuming a “full-time return to school” will be a SAFE full-time return to school.
Parents have asked for a full-time return to school.
The Ministry of Education and Boards have alluded to the notion that such an option is feasible.
Only teachers know the realities in a classroom.
Only teachers can see how “enhanced cleaning protocols”, “frequent hand washing and sanitizing throughout the day”, “increased cleaning of shared spaces”, and “maintaining physical distance” to the extent required by Public Health is not realistic.
So, let’s talk logistics.
In Scenario 1, Boards are leaning toward full class sizes. We will work with 20 students as our basis, though most classes are usually larger. In Scenario 2, a cohort approach is used, so we’ll base our numbers on 15 students.
- Frequent handwashing
This could potentially take anywhere from 135-180 minutes PER DAY, PER CLASS.
This is calculated based on handwashing upon arrival, before & after recess, before & after nutrition breaks, once during each instructional block, and once before dismissal (approximately 9 times/day). The guidelines recommend a 20 second washing time. We have to account for transition between students, so call it 30 seconds per student. Plus the walk to/from the sink, which may be the nearest bathroom or in the classroom. Let’s allocate another 30 seconds per student for that, so 1 minute per child per handwashing event.
We can’t do it “faster” because students can’t all be in the bathroom simultaneously. It’s a one-at-a-time, everyone-line-up-6-feet-apart-in-the-hall-and-hope-another-class-isn’t-doing-it-at -the-same-time situation. Not to mention how a teacher will supervise a line up of 15, let alone 20, students spread out 6 feet apart (that’s a 90 foot or 120 foot line, respectively) Lining up on both sides of the hall to halve the line length won’t be an option, either, because hallways will likely be divided into “two way” streets to enable distancing when people pass in the hall.
Sure, we could use hand sanitizer instead. It would speed things up ever so slightly. Heck, even if it halved handwashing time, that’s still 70-90 minutes daily. Though, the Ontario Ministry of Health does recommend soap and water over sanitizer.
(I haven’t included handwashing after washroom use in these calculations because I’m not sure how using the washroom will work this year, which is another discussion all its own.)
- Increased Cleaning of Shared Spaces
It can be assumed that shared spaces mean classrooms, bathrooms, and common areas like hallways, staff rooms, offices, entry and exit points… the entire school, really.
As a teacher, I have regularly had to search the building for paper towels, hand soap, tissues, and cleaning supplies because my classroom has run out and the custodian is busy with other important tasks. Students have approached me regularly to inform me the bathroom has no soap or that stalls are without toilet paper. I have had the same problem in staff bathrooms. I have had classrooms with broken sinks, sinks without hot water, and no sink at all. Floors and carpets aren’t cleaned often enough. I have become frustrated with the lack of resources and outfitted my own class with supplies, including a vacuum. I am by no means the exception – this is something that many teachers experience and have done.
If custodians were so overworked they couldn’t keep up with the hygiene demands pre-COVID, how on earth can they be expected to do so now?
They can’t. How do I know this? This checklist from the Province, given to Boards in preparation for return-to-school, includes a checklist item that states:
“Health and Safety: Please provide an overview of your school board’s health and safety cleaning protocol, including: Improvements to cleaning protocols and Expectations for cleaning high-demand areas in classrooms by TEACHERS, staff, and STUDENTS (e.g., office surfaces, door handles).”
They expect teachers and students to be a part of cleaning shared spaces. Teachers and students are not infection control specialists. Students are not WHMIS trained. Also, we cannot maintain physical distance if we are cleaning our classroom together. Nor will we have much time because we’ve already spent 3 hours of our day washing our hands.
- Maintaining Physical Distance
At this point in the pandemic, we know the drill. Keep 6 ft between yourself and others. If you can’t do this, wear a mask. Continue washing hands and cleaning high-touch surfaces.
If students need a 6ft bubble (36 sq feet) to maintain physical distancing, a Scenario 1 class should be 720 sq ft (a little under 40ftx20ft) and a Scenario 2 class should be 540 sq ft (25ftx20ft). Add an additional 36 sq ft for the teacher, too! That’s all they need, apparently. The Ministry of Education has suggested that teachers don’t need PPE because they’ll be standing at the front of the class 6ft away from their students. (I’ve never spent more than 10 minutes at the front of my class during a lesson. Teachers circulate, teachers assist students with work, this is what teaching is. We do not lecture.) Oh, and add in some room for students to get up from their desks and reach the door to use the bathroom without infringing on their peers’ bubbles.
With the exception of the odd Kindergarten classroom, I don’t think I’ve ever been in one large enough to accommodate Scenario 1. Even Scenario 2 is pushing it.
But, that’s ok! If we can’t physically distance, we can add other protective measures, like mandatory masking for anyone without exemptions and plexiglass shields. Enhanced ventilation and fresh air help, too.
Unfortunately, most Public Health Authorities have stated that masking won’t be required in schools and that schools are exempt from the indoor mask requirement in many jurisdictions. Any plexiglass orders I’m privy to knowing about, thanks to tuning into live-streamed Board Trustee meetings, are earmarked for the front office in a school, not for student or teacher desks. School ventilation systems are outdated. Many do not have A/C and some classrooms are windowless or have windows that will not open. Any potential mitigation teachers may wish to do to offset the limitations on physical distancing are quashed by these numerous issues.
Many teachers do not feel safe returning to the classroom with these issues looming. A clear indication that these variables have been considered and are being realistically addressed is needed. Parents are torn between sending their children to school and keeping them home, which, for many, means a loss of income.
The only solution that addresses the fears and concerns of educators and ensures the safest possible return to school for students is one that requires more funding:
- Boards need to be able to secure additional classroom space.
- Boards need to be able to guarantee smaller cohort sizes.
- Boards need to be able to hire additional custodial staff.
- Boards need to be able to update HVAC systems before September.
- Boards need to be able to hire enough teachers to facilitate additional classes due to smaller cohorts and to facilitate the virtual learning option.
- Board-issued PPE, barriers, and cleaning supplies need to be stocked.
- Occasional Teachers need paid sick leave.
Mr. Ford, Mr. Lecce, Board Trustees & MPPs: I thank you for taking the time to read this letter and I implore you to consider these areas of concern from teacher and parent perspectives. The protocols Public Health has put in place are working to manage the COVID-19 outbreak. Abandoning mask wearing and promising hygiene and distancing practices that are not realistic in a classroom setting will set us back, endanger student and teacher lives, and, therefore, the lives of their families. This virus is new. Its long term physical and cognitive effects are unknown and we should be doing everything in our power to reduce risk wherever possible.
Parents of students: Speak up. Make it clear what you expect for a return to school. What is being proposed is not what is best, it is what is most affordable. Our kids deserve better.
I can’t order a freakin’ Timbit without a plexiglass shield between my masked mug and that of a gloved, mask-clad cashier who has to endure our brief 30 second interaction before passing my order across the counter via a stainless steel tray duct taped to a hockey stick to ensure distancing. Tell me again how returning to school indoors, full classes, 6 hours a day, without PPE is even an option right now?