A playground is roped off to stop children from playing during the pandemic. This was before we knew Covid was largely airborne.

Ashley Miller: Teaching in a Pandemic – Part One

I met with a teacher from Edmonton Public Schools in October 2021. Much of what teachers say publicly is supposed to be filtered through official communication channels. I asked several teachers for an interview, but none were willing to talk with me. After several months of attempting to connect with a teacher, I found one who agreed to be interviewed under the condition of anonymity.

A three hour interview with Ashley Miller resulted in 40 pages of dialogue. To best convey the important threads of the teaching and student experience during the pandemic, this interview has been broken into three parts: Trickle Down Politics, Online Teaching and Other Learnings, and Children of the Pandemic.

Part One – Trickle Down Politics

When the UCP campaigned in 2019, their education platform called into question the competency of teachers, and vowed to “affirm parents have primary responsibility for the education of their children.” Once former premier Jason Kenney was elected, he set the tone for how his government would interact with teachers, making statements like “teachers don’t like this [standardized testing], but it’s what parents want.” His executive director of issues management, Matt Wolf, ratcheted up anti-teacher rhetoric using terms like “radical, comrade” to refer to teachers and the curriculum.

Miller connected how the political discourse over the year prior to the pandemic impacted the school environment.

“When the UCP started announcing their education policies, the open hostility and contempt for educators [was] rampant editorially, in the media, and on social media. That was a really challenging time for our profession. It was a snippet of what we’re now seeing with the anti-intellectualism and anti-science and that’s been persistent for the last 18 months.”

Miller shared what it was like. “You would go to the grocery store and overhear people talking about those ‘entitled teachers’ and ‘they’re so lazy’. ‘They only work from nine to three.” When you start hearing those kinds of conversations, and from people that you thought valued your place in the world …” her voice trailed off.

She gathered her thoughts again. “It just caused such a division going into the ongoing crisis that is this pandemic. We were set up for the emotional flogging of a lifetime. I feel the same way about our colleagues in health care. We were already positioned to become the enemy of the people, the enemy of the average person, going into the pandemic.”

“It just caused such a division going into the ongoing crisis that is this pandemic. We were set up for the emotional flogging of a lifetime. I feel the same way about our colleagues in health care. We were already positioned to become the enemy of the people, the enemy of the average person, going into the pandemic.”

“In a time when we should all be coming together and using our resources to strengthen community ties and support each other, all of those things that were set up prior to March of 2020 continued to be hammered down upon us to drive the mistrust,” Miller concluded.

The lack of respect for Alberta’s professional bodies affected how decision-making and communications were handled in the pandemic. When the government announced the full lockdown in March of 2020, it appeared that they had not discussed the possibility with public bodies who deliver services to Albertans.

Miller said, “They hadn’t told anybody. The government makes those announcements without any consultation with schools or districts. Absolutely nobody knows.” The lack of communication with professional bodies from the UCP government was a consistent theme in Alberta. (See Pharmacy story. TBP)

Miller recalled how she learned schools were being shut down. “The government announcement came on Sunday [March 15] at five o’clock, and I know this very particularly because my parents were travelling back from vacation and my husband and I were In the car listening to the radio, driving to pick up the groceries and dropping them off at their house.”

“Jeff, [Miller’s husband] turns to me and says, ‘What the fuck?’” Miller responded, “Your guess is as good as mine.”

The uncertainty of the policies implemented to handle the Covid pandemic had a significant impact on school communities, even as they returned to in-person schooling in the fall of 2020.

Miller said, “When it was clear that we were coming back into the building in September, we were all waiting for Alberta guidelines.” Between the province, Edmonton Catholic School District, and Edmonton Public School Board there were three different policies.

Miller said, “As teachers in all divisions, we were having discussions back and forth, asking each other, “Has your administrator said anything to you about this? Why is it different? This one follows the provincial guidelines. This one doesn’t.’”

Miller added, “The policy discrepancies were really challenging to navigate. My politically correct answer is that they were exercising an abundance of caution.”

She paused and laughed. “That’s their new favourite phrase: ‘an abundance of caution.’”

She continued. “Not making a decision was easier than making a decision. That’s my impression. My not-so-political answer is that whoever was making policy just didn’t bother to do the work, didn’t bother to do the research, possibly was reassigned. I think that’s something that probably happened a lot last year—lots of people going into different departments. That’s more likely. But it just mostly felt like nobody was willing to tackle some of those questions.”

This lack of consistent guidelines had the biggest impact on substitute teachers, who move from school to school. Miller’s substitute teacher colleagues discovered that rules were not consistent and it was never clear who was responsible for enforcement. “They would go to one school and the kids were playing with pieces and touching everything together. They would say, “I don’t want to go back there because I didn’t feel safe as a worker.’” Miller explained that substitute teachers don’t have to accept a job that is offered, but at the same time, they need to take the work.

Substitute teachers are contract employees without benefits such as sick leave pay. Many substitute teachers are older teachers who retired from full-time work. According to multiple news articles reporting on the shortage of substitute teachers, because of the perceived lack of safety policies, many substitute teachers decided that they were not willing to take the risk of getting Covid and stopped filling vacancies.

According to Global News, during the Omicron wave of Covid in January of 2022, 10 per cent of teachers were absent on sick leave. For the classrooms with absent teachers, over 10 per cent of those had no substitute teacher to fill in.

Miller said the inconsistency of policies “were really challenging.” Fortunately, Miller felt safe at her own school. “Our administration put in quite regimented policies. It was exhausting. But we were very safe. We were very lucky this year hearing about the outbreaks at other schools and the shutdowns.”

Administrative decision making has a huge impact on how Covid moved through schools. Miller gave an example. “Right at the beginning of the year last year [fall 2020, at one of Edmonton’s high schools] they had all of the Grade 10’s attend assembly together in the gym. A positive case of Covid meant that the entire Grade 10 population had to isolate.” Likewise, all the teachers in that gym also had to isolate for two weeks. Miller said, “That’s devastating for a school population.”

During the 2020-2021 school year, there was still an attempt to stop the spread of Covid. If someone tested positive for the virus, the people in their circle (e.g. classroom cohorts LINK) were required to isolate themselves for 14 days. The impact of isolation requirements when teachers were responsible for different levels (elementary, junior high, or high school) had a significant effect on all the classes that teacher instructed. Miller said, “We had one class go down last year, in the first quarter of the year, and we lost 11 teachers with that one class.”

To address this issue, schools changed teaching assignments in the second quarter. “We came back to school and were told, ‘Here’s your new schedule’. You may have been teaching humanities classes, and then all of a sudden you were teaching humanities and science because they wanted [fewer] teachers dealing with that one class.”

“Everybody was using the word pivot last year.”

Miller expressed her frustration with the language and laughed. “Nothing like buzzwords that make you want to slap people. But really, I mean that was always the thing—‘out of an abundance of caution’ … ‘as we pivot gracefully into this new learning environment,’ you know.”

Pandemic measures in the return to schooling

In March of 2020, when the lockdown was announced, school was cancelled and all students went home. Within a week, the teachers and schools had developed teaching plans, and the remainder of the school year was delivered online.

In the 2020-2021 school year, around one-third of Edmonton parents elected to keep their children learning from home. The remaining two-thirds returned to in-person learning.

Despite infusions of money from the federal government to implement new HVAC systems to improve air circulation, provincial public health measures in school were limited to masking, cleaning protocols, hand sanitizing, and cohorting.

These public health measures instituted to keep students and teachers safe in the in-person learning environment added a considerable amount of work to an already heavy workload.

Miller said, “Our schedule changed so much. I think at the end we were on a seven period schedule. We were walking all our students to their different classes. By the end of the day, you’d put in 16,000 steps whether you wanted to or not.”

The breaks between classes were extended so that teachers could clean the classroom in between groups of students. Miller said, “Oh my God, so much cleaning. So much cleaning. You spray everyone’s desk on the way out. You wipe them down. It was in the policies that students were not allowed to help with that process. And once again, of course there were situations where a lot of teachers had them helping, because what can you do? It was insane.”

I got a rash on my feet from the cleaning spray that drifted down.”

Reporting Covid cases in schools

In the 2020-2021 school year, the government used some public health strategies in an attempt to stop the spread of Covid: masking, sanitizing, handwashing, cohorting, and isolation of contacts.

With uneven implementation of strategies and unclear communication, when students returned to school in the fall of 2020, Covid cases began to climb and exploded into 1,828 new cases each day by November. Teachers and parents anxiously watched as Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the former chief medical officer of health, reported daily Covid numbers, not knowing what it would mean for education delivery. In November 2020, Edmonton Public and Edmonton Catholic School Boards requested permission to close in-person education and move online. The Alberta government initiated two further shutdowns that year.

By February 2022, Covid had been declared an endemic rather than a pandemic and public health mitigation had largely stopped.

(Parts 2&3 to be published)

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