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Returning to School During COVID-19

by Lisa Everitt Alberta Teachers' Association | August 20 2020

On March 15, 2020, Alberta joined other Canadian provinces and declared that, for all schools in Alberta, in-person classes would be cancelled until September because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This announcement was coupled with other measures, resulting in the closure of businesses, public spaces, libraries and gyms, to name a few. The purpose of this lockdown was to prevent illness and sometimes death, particularly for vulnerable populations, such as the elderly and immunocompromised individuals, and allow our health systems to continue to function effectively. This act of collective caring—something not seen in this generation—has changed how we live and has meant great sacrifices for many people. The impact of COVID-19 will be felt for years to come.

In a school setting, the cancellation of in-person classes meant that teachers, with the support of school leadership and other education workers, had to make a quick leap to establish emergency remote teaching programs. Here in Alberta, teachers, school leaders and support staff worked tirelessly to transition to remote teaching. Those efforts helped students to continue to learn, albeit in a different fashion.

Approximately one month into the lockdown, the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA), under the direction of Dr. Phil McRae, associate coordinator, Research, launched a survey to better understand the experience and concerns of teachers and school leaders during the pandemic. Administered between April 27, 2020, and May 15, 2020, 8,128 teachers responded to the survey (including more than 7,200 teachers and more than 900 school leaders). In June 2020, we released the preliminary findings, accompanied by a four-page infographic, summarizing our key learnings from it. 

The survey addressed five overlapping areas of concern: Well-Being; Equity; Technology Use and Online Instruction; Pedagogical Practices and the Profession of Teaching; and Return to Public School Buildings. 

We also provided the survey to the Canadian Teachers’ Federation for distribution to all Canadian teachers, and they conducted a pan-Canadian study in June 2020.

Through this study, we’ve learned a lot about teacher and student health during emergency remote teaching, and we want to highlight what teachers and school leaders shared about their well-being and the return to public school buildings, in particular. 

Well-Being

As part of the study, teachers reported on their own health during the pandemic, as well as the social-emotional consequences of moving to a remote teaching environment. Through a series of questions, they identified several challenges—for example, about 20 per cent indicated that they either infrequently or never got sufficient sleep at night and 70 per cent reported feeling exhausted by the end of the school day. Approximately 75 per cent reported that they didn’t experience the same emotional connection with their students in the remote teaching environment, 63 per cent reported feeling isolated and 43 per cent reported they were experiencing some of their students’ trauma. Experiencing the vicarious trauma of students and their families can give rise to what’s known in the caring professions as compassion fatigue. In fact, the ATA and ASEBP have partnered to engage researchers at the University of Calgary to examine compassion fatigue in the education sector—you’ll hear more about this study, and how it can be used to help support the health of school system employees, in the coming months.

These quantitative findings have raised concerns about the emotional health of both teachers and students. Qualitative analysis expanding on this data found that participants were worried about many aspects of their students’ lives—how things were at home, their mental and physical health, as well as their learning environments. Teachers and school leaders also reported that COVID-19 has exacerbated existing inequality for their students, in particular, noting issues of economic security among families and the ensuing issues that often result. One participant summarized it well: “Are they safe, are they fed?”

Teachers also expressed concerns about their own mental and physical health and finding balance between their work and home lives. Some indicated that they often feel sad or angry, feel disconnected from students and colleagues or feel overwhelmed by the expectations of working full-time from home while homeschooling their own children. Others expressed concerns about their re-entry into public school buildings.

Returning to Public School Buildings

In September, schools will be re-opening in full and, though there will be new safety measures in place, such as masks, hand sanitizing and school thermometers, there remain potential challenges and uncertainties for the upcoming year. For example, teachers and school leaders identified other concerns around overall student readiness to return to school themselves and the mental health of the community, students and teachers—including concerns around mental health supports for students and families, other personal protective equipment (PPE), the ability to practice and enforce social distancing, poverty reduction and learning supports. 

School jurisdictions, school leaders and teachers are currently working to figure out a plan that will be safe for students, staff and the community, but we know that, for many education workers, there will be a great deal of stress and anxiety about what this return will look like. 

Taking Care of Yourself

We know the enormity of the return to school buildings may feel overwhelming. It is community effort, caring and compassion that will guide us all through these times, but know that as much as you may want to take care of your students or colleagues, remember that you need to prioritize your own health, as well. There are a plethora of health supports for school leaders, teachers and other school employees available if you need them—from your Employee and Family Assistance Program to this compilation of COVID-19 resources.

If life is running away on you, stop, take a deep breath and let yourself work through that moment. Then take the time to care for yourself—because you matter and you are worth it.

Lisa Everitt

An executive staff officer of Government – Research with the Alberta Teachers’ Association, Lisa’s worked closely with ASEBP in a variety of research and other capacities over the years. When she’s not hard at work supporting the health and well-being of Alberta’s public education sector, you’ll find her enjoying everything the outdoors has to offer. After spending much of her childhood in Alberta’s mountains, and beginning her teaching career in the Northwest Territories, for her there’s nothing better than camping, reconnecting with wild spaces and learning more about the land.