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Column: COVID-19, teachers’ contract add stress to back-to-school

Kids deserve a positive experience back in the classroom.
Tracy Sherlock crop
Tracy Sherlock writes about education, parenting and social issues in her columns at the Richmond News.

If my Twitter feed is anything to go by, teachers are still quite anxious about returning to school for this, the third pandemic September.

I put out a call, asking how teachers are feeling about back to school and I received hundreds of responses. Here’s a sample:

“Depressed to be quite honest. The outlook is bleak. I still must wear a mask at work but now I’ll be all alone and unprotected by students while my wife goes through chemo at home. Plus, the contract crap which I am very pessimistic about. No thanks to this entire year,” one tweeter said.  

Another tweeted, “Excited to be back but dreading the health risk. I developed COVID (and long COVID) after a two-hour power outage at work. Majority of K-seven kids not fully vaxed. I’m eight months out from last shot and no mask requirement. Add in ever worsening staff shortages and insulting wage offer.”

And one more: “We are exhausted, beaten down, and don’t feel respected by anyone. Our time in class will be well led and organized but many won’t have the stamina to do more. We will work our contracted time and be excellent but for many that will be it and that needs to be enough.”

The provincial government released guidelines for safe schools that say masks will be a personal choice, everyone should stay home if they have symptoms and school will continue as it did pre-pandemic, including events like assemblies, sports and extracurricular activities. The government says it has invested more than $166.5 million into improving classroom ventilation.

Of course, students will be encouraged to wash their hands before and after using shared equipment, to not share anything that touches their mouths, like instruments or water bottles, unless they are disinfected between uses and to cover their mouths when coughing or sneezing.

In Canada and in B.C., more than 85 per centof people aged 12 and older have had two doses of COVID-19 vaccine, but the rates for booster shots are much lower and the rate for two shots for children aged five to 11 is just 46 per cent.

In most areas of life, things have gone back to close to normal. Yes, we wear masks and stay home if we’re sick, but people are travelling again, large in-person gatherings are happening and most people who do get COVID recover without serious illness.

It’s hard to argue against a return to mostly normal classrooms, but it’s also important to recognize that teachers must spend many hours a day in close and sometimes crowded spaces with up to 30 other people.

Protect our Province BC and others wrote an open letter to Health Minister Adrian Dix, calling for universal masking in schools, improvements to air quality and a notification system for exposures in schools.

The pandemic is still happening. About 40 people a week in B.C. die within 30 days of a positive COVID-19 test. Some of those people may have died from other causes, but this is how the deaths are being reported.

It’s not only the third pandemic back-to-school season, but it’s also the first September since 2019 that teachers are returning to work without a signed contract. Meanwhile, some members of the B.C. General Employees Union who work for the government were picketing for wages that match the cost of living, which has increased rapidly this year. The government was offering about 11 per cent over three years, while the cost of living increase in July for one year was eight per cent in July. In a hopeful vein, news of progress and perhaps a tentative agreement emerged on Tuesday.

I’m sure no one, including the teachers, wants a school strike. The last one, in 2014, stretched over two school years, closing schools for about six weeks in both June and September.

On the plus side, the province will be providing $60 million in one-time funding to school districts to help students whose families may be struggling. The money will go towards school meal programs, school supplies and other fees for students in need, so that they can participate in field trips and other activities. The province says this is the first of several announcements to come next week to help people struggling with rising costs.

The return to school promises to be interesting, but let’s hope it’s mostly positive for the kids’ sake. One Twitter user said – and justifiably so – the app is overly negative and not an unbiased reflection. To combat that, I’m giving the last word to a teacher who is thrilled to be going back.

“I am very excited to be returning to the classroom. I love my job; I love my students; and I love the community where I teach. Things may not be perfect, but nothing brightens my day more than seeing the joy, excitement and curiosity on my students faces,” he tweeted.

That’s what I like to hear.

Tracy Sherlock is a freelance journalist who writes about education and social issues. Read her blog or email her tracy.sherlock@gmail.com.

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