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Pandemic exposes inequities that must be addressed


May 20, 2020 Shelley L. Morse, President, Canadian Teachers’ Federation

When schools abruptly began closing in March, very few knew at the time that days of closures and physical distancing would become weeks, and that weeks would turn into months. I distinctly remember the week that the CTF shuttered its office doors how discussions quickly changed from planning to action. It all happened so suddenly that only now have many of us had a chance to begin reflecting on this extraordinary period in our lives, especially as we now look toward the fall.

Let’s all be honest, this has not been easy. Everyone is dealing with a plethora of challenges, ranging from health concerns and economic fears to isolation and being confined with others at all times of the day. Combining work with child care, seemingly 24 hours a day, has pushed a lot of people to their limits. With women accounting for 75 per cent of the teaching ranks, an unequal and heavy burden tends to fall on their shoulders.

Uncertainty makes it difficult to imagine the moment when we can once again move freely, see friends and family up close and in person, and get back to doing what we all do best: teaching in schools with our students. Until then, health and safety must come first. But as we’ve sacrificed to keep the virus at bay, fissures throughout society have become increasingly evident, and the importance of schools has been noticed by all.

Bringing our world to a screeching halt has shone a huge spotlight on the great inequities that exist in our communities. When at their best, our schools, although imperfect, act as the tides that raise all boats. No matter the backgrounds of our students, the classroom is a wonderful equalizer where ideas and experiences are shared across the socio-economic spectrum.

Schools are also where vast numbers of students receive their meals every day, and where teachers, support personnel and counsellors keep a close eye on the most vulnerable. Once everything stopped, the support systems that students depend on did as well. It also turns out that the learning experience is difficult to replicate from afar, something that teachers have long known.

... the learning experience is difficult to replicate from afar, something that teachers have long known.

As provinces and territories introduced distance learning, teachers have worked tirelessly to recreate learning through high-tech and low-tech methods. Although distance learning can never replace the experience of the classroom, it also exposed the digital divide and economic disparity throughout communities. Not all families have Wi-Fi, and countless others lack the devices to connect. Even when technology is present in the home, the conditions needed to concentrate and participate in group chats are often not.

Food security, high-risk homes and connectivity issues are challenges that have risen to the surface for all to see. Problems that may have been swept under society’s carpet are now exposed.We must work collectively to address these glaring inequities to see that our students receive the support they need to learn, and learn safely, whether schools are open or not.

At this juncture of the COVID-19 crisis, many of the questions we had at the beginning remain unanswered today. Although the lights are turning back on in some classrooms in parts of the country, and students are being welcomed back, this situation is far from over. As we are all too aware, it is likely not a one-off.

For scores of students, the interruption of the school year was sudden, and came as they were either preparing to return to school after or pausing classes for spring break. School years are nicely bookended, but for the majority of students, teachers and education workers, there will not be any proper closure this year, no milestones to celebrate together. From kindergarten to Grade 12, the dramatic stoppage meant little time to say goodbye, to carry out the end-of-year rituals reserved for the endless possibilities of summer.

The combination of a pandemic, physical distancing and an abrupt end to the year means that student mental health needs to be a priority when schools reopen. We must all be prepared to help our children and youth deal with everything they and their families have endured. But to do that, we have to make sure that all teachers and support personnel receive the help they need to address mental health and well-being to cope with what has happened, and to be ready for their students. ❚

Opinions expressed on this page represent the views of the individual writers and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Alberta Teachers’ Association.

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