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Teachers need to be in school

Q and A

August 27, 2020 Dennis Theobald, ATA Executive Secretary


Question: Why is the Alberta Teachers’ Association saying that teachers should return to their schools in September even though we are still in a pandemic?

Answer: I’m writing this, in fits and starts, on my iPad while in the emergency department of the University of Alberta hospital in Edmonton. It’s late evening and I’ve been here about six hours now waiting for my mother to be assessed, treated and admitted.

Over the course of the day, I’ve had an opportunity to watch hospital staff work together in shifting teams to manage a constant flow of patients, and I’ve been struck by the calm and normalcy that they are creating in circumstances that one might reasonably expect to be chaotic. For them, it is their work and their responsibility to take care of those who, like my mother, turn up on their doorstep needing help.

Hospital staff, and visitors like me, are screened upon arrival, answering a set of questions about possible COVID-19 risk and exposure. Everyone is masked, except for some patients, and many doctors, nurses and technicians are wearing face shields or goggles. Some efforts have been taken to limit crowding and control movement, but people are working in close proximity to patients and one another. Staff re-glove and re-gown as they move from patient to patient, and hand sanitizer is being pumped freely. Yet the overall impression being conveyed is “business as usual (with a few adaptations).”

Earlier in the summer, I had a conversation with Dr. Lynora Saxinger, a leading epidemiologist who is advising the chief medical officer of health and who has volunteered her time to work with the Association on issues relating to schooling during the pandemic. Some of you may have met Dr. Saxinger, at least virtually, in one of our very well-attended telephone town halls or at the online conference attended just over a week ago by more than 1,000 of the province’s school leaders. Dr. Saxinger spoke to me about how workers in the health-care sector had been initially very fearful about returning to work, believing that doing so would put their health and indeed their lives and those of their loved ones at risk as they dealt with the pandemic. She talked about the measures that were then taken to improve staff safety and to build confidence noting that, as a result, people working in health care were actually at lower risk of contracting COVID-19 than the general population. In terms of contracting the virus, it turned out that the U of A hospital was about the safest public place you could be (although it’s now hour eight and death by boredom is still a distinct possibility).

Let’s talk about public education. In March, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers quickly transitioned to provide emergency remote teaching, demonstrating resilience, resourcefulness and deep personal and professional commitment to supporting their students’ learning and well-being. But while it was the best we could do, we know that this mode of instruction does not work for many students and fails those who are particularly at risk in their academic or home lives. Furthermore, the events of the last six months have made it abundantly clear that the public education system plays an essential role in facilitating economic activity, maintaining social norms and order, and protecting and supporting children and families who are facing a wide variety of pressures, threats and challenges. While not directly related to the mission of public education, these are still important factors that must be accounted for in the formation of public policy around a return to schooling.

Finally, we know from our survey of teachers that, collectively, we want to return to in-person learning. Teachers miss their students and they miss their classrooms.

So our task now is to advocate strongly for measures that will diminish the risk to students, teachers, staff and community as students return to school, and build public and member confidence. To this end, the Association, based on the advice of Dr. Saxinger, has set out seven priorities for enhancing safety and confidence upon the restarting of schools and is providing advice to individual members who may be at particular risk of contracting the virus.

We also pushed hard to delay the start of school until after Labour Day to ensure that teachers, school leaders and staff have sufficient time to work out the myriad details that must be addressed to ensure that school resumes in the safest and most orderly manner possible. Like many of you, I am frustrated that more is not being done to mitigate risks surrounding a return to schooling, particularly around facilitating distancing in junior or senior high school settings, but this is why Dr. Saxinger and the chief medical officer of health have called for mandatory wearing of masks to reduce risks to more acceptable levels.

Inherent in being a professional is a commitment to public service, even if it means accepting a measure of personal risk or potential sacrifice. All of the women and men around me in this hospital setting realize this and have reported to do their critical work knowing that doing so entails some personal risk. The same is true of taxi drivers and grocery store clerks. Are we to expect less of ourselves as professionals? Are Albertans to expect less of us as a profession?

Students need teachers, and both students and teachers need to be in school. The Alberta Teachers’ Association is working hard to ensure that this can be done with reasonable safety and that teachers can serve the community as the professionals they are. ❚

Questions for consideration in this ­column are welcome. Please address them to Dennis Theobald at Barnett House (