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 Two

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 Two: Online teaching and other learnings

From March to June of 2020, schooling was delivered online to all students. In addition, during several shorter shutdowns in the 2021-2022 school year, teaching was done online. 

The logistics of teaching online were challenging, especially initially. Miller listed the questions of teachers and administrators. “Do we work from the school [in the building but teach] online, or do we work from home online? A lot of us didn’t have resources at school to do online. I didn’t have a webcam in my classroom, I didn’t have a headset. I didn’t have two monitors. Frankly, it’s almost impossible to do a class online if you don’t have two monitors, or at least a tablet and a monitor. And so for a lot of us, it became very clear that we can’t actually do our jobs from school.”

She continued, “There’s a lot of things that you utilize that your school [not only does not have, but also that they would never pay for]. I think about our elementary teachers and their resources and the storybooks and the extra things. Most of those items are owned by teachers and not by schools. To transfer that to an online environment on a platform that we had pretty much never used—it was just chaos.”

Miller was cognizant of the privilege she had during this time. “As teachers, we are upper middle class people. We have regular incomes. Generally speaking, we are people who have very consistent housing and access to the Internet and all of those kinds of things.”

She contrasted this with the reality of over half of Edmonton’s families. “To a family who maybe, the parents don’t speak English and they have three children—let’s say they’re eight, 11, and 14—to say, ‘go home, learn from home. Good luck.’” 

Families living in poverty meant those students had limited access to school. 

“Let’s say your parents work or you have a single parent household or there is shift work or nobody in your family has a vehicle and the only way that you’re getting to school is by the yellow school bus.” For these students, accessing the technology necessary for online schooling was impossible. “You make resources available at the school. You can come pick up this packet of science homework, but once again that’s limiting access.”

To make matters more difficult, many schools in less affluent neighbourhoods do not have enough computers for every child. “Schools like ours have one-third the amount of devices [available] to students.” Teachers needed to figure out how to get learning materials to their students. 

Miller said, “We just gave things to students. We were just like, ‘Well, you’re gonna need it. So just take it.’ Science kits, trigonometry sets, manipulatives. There’s a lot of things that got sent home because they needed to go with kids, whether it was the school’s or teacher’s personal items.”

For weeks, Miller and her colleagues delivered supplies to students. “That’s a thing that we’re not supposed to do. We are definitely not supposed to go to students and give them stuff. But what else to do?”

“I think more than anything— public schools—our biggest gift to the community is access. It’s a place where equitable information resources, care, and support [is available to all children]. As soon as you remove the building, all of that falls apart. ”

Moving to online schooling really clarified the importance of schools as a physical place of learning for all community members. “I think more than anything— public schools—our biggest gift to the community is access. It’s a place where equitable information resources, care, and support [is available to all children]. As soon as you remove the building, all of that falls apart.” She added, “We lost so many kids [because] they couldn’t access anything that we were doing.” 

Despite the difficulties involved in delivering and receiving education online, Miller said, “There were a lot of things that happened during online teaching that I love—that were incredible breakthroughs for certain students.”

She learned a lot herself. “There’s things that you learn about how to reach those young people, even if they struggle. I started incorporating a lot more technology into my classes, and with that comes a lot of independent work, a lot of open-ended creative work. I got to see some amazing things from students [at] that time.”

On a personal level, there were many things that Miller appreciated. “There’s a lot of things I loved about that time [teaching online], only because the urgency of the school building was a lot less. In April to June of 2020, I remembered that eating lunch is important. I hadn’t eaten lunch or gone to the bathroom during a work day in four years.”

She continued, “[In the first lockdown], I was eating lunch. I was going for walks after work and I was still running my extras, but online. I was doing remedial classes every Saturday for two hours. Some days I would have three students and some days I would have 30, and often it was students who wanted to see each other. I had a few students who would show up for the Saturday sessions who, when they came to class, would not participate or turn on the cameras, but the Saturday sessions were less stressful for them, made them less anxious, and they felt like a choice. They got a lot out of them.”

This flexibility helped Miller to teach her students to find what worked for them in school. “I think part of our responsibility as educators is to help students learn those things about themselves, and then help them work within the pre-established system until they don’t have to.”

She coached her students, telling them, “Your routine can look different. Say Saturday morning is the time that you do work. Let’s do work on Saturday morning. Some people work well from 10 till midnight. Maybe you’re a person who functions really great from one till three in the morning. But then you need to sleep at other times. You can’t just stay up.”  

Miller acknowledged that her experience was not the same for every teacher. “I recognize how fortunate I was, and I recognize that my online classes were very successful compared to a lot of people’s because of the relationships I have with students. For teachers that were new last year, it was so hard.” 

She said for her colleagues who are also parents, “It was a mess to navigate.” 

“Being a parent is such an incredible responsibility in and of itself and then to tack on the education side of things. My colleagues who are educator-parents—a lot of them said things fell through the cracks. They had to. They had to make decisions between their families, their children, and their students. It was a triage situation.”


In the initial shut down, teachers were told to do whatever made sense. Miller said, “A lot of us were allowed to work from home because it was easier on the school.” 

“We were fortunate that our administrator treated us like human beings and saw circumstances that really work. Even some people with kids could bring their own children to work. That was not [officially] allowed—I’m going to be very clear about that—but it did happen. It had to happen, because we’re people. Life was complicated and policies [were] not blanket. They can’t be blanket, because one size fits all doesn’t work in any situation, let alone education.”

Miller continued, “For some colleagues, if their administration is rule bound, it was harder to work with. Those are tough decisions to make as an administrator. How do you say, ‘I know my boss’s boss’s boss said this thing, but I know that it’s not right. I could be penalized.’” 

Both teachers and administrators were in a difficult situation. “The ethics were incredibly tough and still are incredibly complicated. I know a lot of people that were disciplined last year for questioning policy.”

Miller corrected herself. “Discipline when you have a union is really interesting. I shouldn’t say discipline. That’s definitely the wrong word. People were reprimanded, usually verbally, never in writing. Sometimes in person, sometimes over the phone for not minding their own business, not toeing the line.”

Miller’s comments showed why this interview needed to be anonymous. “It’s so hilarious to be in a profession where you’re constantly coached to encourage inquiry, creative thinking, and discernment [in students]. A fundamental tenet of pedagogy is teaching people how to think for themselves. And yet, in a year where what we needed was creative solutions and outside-of-the-box thinking, we were basically asked to shut up and toe the line.”

Teachers had to find ways around the rules. “Definitely don’t ask for permission to do things. Maybe do things until somebody notices and then explain yourself and hope that they say it’s OK. But definitely don’t ask for permission, because if you ask for permission and you get a no, then everybody gets a no.”

The return to in-person learning

When students returned to in-person learning in the fall of 2020, various solutions to limit the spread of Covid were implemented. Students were kept in cohorts as much as possible. This meant that rather than moving from class to class with a variety of people (in particular at the junior and senior high school levels), students were kept with the same group of people, more like elementary school classes. 

“One of the biggest things that were talked about was cohorting and distancing.” Distancing meant that people should be two metres apart. 

She discussed the absurdity of distancing when there were increased class sizes that were the result of the 2019 budget freeze and a growing school population. “The laughter when the policies came out about how kids are supposed to be two metres apart at school? Oh my Lord, like I mean, if you would have kept our class sizes capped?” 

She continued, “I had colleagues that had 39 students in their classes at the junior high level. With cohorting and students that go to school online, we don’t have enough teachers.”  

A lack of proper funding for schools meant that what “was a policy that was supposed to be a rule—nobody could actually do it.”  

She explained what attempts to follow policy looked like. “Phys ed, drama, dance, options were limited by the two metre distance [rule]. Option classes across the district were cancelled. There were schools that had three options, and the students rotated through them all year. [One junior high] had computer literacy, financial management, and media. Students had to take those. No music, no drama, no art. It was just a mess.”

The creation of the quarter semester was the further attempt to limit students’ movement, mixing, and spread of Covid. Edmonton schools delivered classes in two blocks per day over four semesters for the 2020-2021 year. (For example, semester one would be math in the morning and art after lunch. Semester two would be science in the morning and English in the afternoon). 

It was difficult to actually teach in quarter semesters. “It was incredible. It was untenable.” Miller was honest with her students about learning an entire grade level of material in two-and-a-half months. She said to them, “This pace is unreasonable. I know it’s unreasonable and you know it’s unreasonable.” Miller reassured her students. “I want you to remember this is your mark for this grade and no one cares.” 

She told them, “I want to know if you understand the material. If you failed that quiz, come back and ask questions so that when you get into the next grade, some of these concepts make sense.”

Miller would work to reassure her students that the delivery was not appropriate for the subject or their development. “Adolescents need, and generally speaking, we all thrive in routines. Last year, that got smashed because we didn’t have a routine.” 

She explained. “The thing is, to an adolescent mind, they know that the world is on fire. But that doesn’t change the self-centred nature of their adolescent brain. They are brilliant and empathetic and complex and still self-centred in maturity. They start feeling like these things are happening to [them personally].” Miller emphasized. “Not to everyone. [They] are suffering in a situation and [they begin to believe that] ‘I must be the problem.’”  

The future of classrooms

Miller said she distrusts the phrase ‘when things are back to normal.’ She said, “It probably won’t ever be the same.” 

“There is the future I want and the future that I see. Those are two drastically different things.”

Ideally, Miller said, “We should be properly staffed for the amount of young people that are in our building. We should have more diverse staff who also deal in social work, mental health, addictions, counselling, possibly prevention of behaviour that might lead to crime. Punitive behaviour is not the way to go about fostering capable young people.” She laughed, “It’s so crazy. What a revolutionary thought.”

The future Miller said she sees is one in which, “We talk about hybrid learning, but don’t do it well. We talk about more authentic assessment and don’t do it well. We talk about modifying the classroom environment, but we don’t do it well. We talk about changing the scheduling, making classes accessible for more students at different times, and we don’t do it well.”

She explained this is because “tearing down the system that we’ve built would involve admitting that you’ve been wrong as opposed to understanding that we can grow.”

“Pedagogically, that’s all we want from students: we want them to grow. We want them to grow in a way that makes them flexible, adaptable.” 

Miller laughed, “Those words are great. We seek that for our young people. We say that we value it and say that it’s important and then we just keep doing the same thing. We talk about all these different models of education, all these different things, but we’re not actually changing anything. Nothing groundbreaking has happened.”

She continued, “I was really hoping that if anything, this pandemic could give us a reason to throw it all out and start again. And we didn’t take the opportunity. I’m so disappointed in our profession. I’m not saying individual teachers and I’m not saying individual administrators, but as a whole our system. This would have been a perfect time to just say, ‘Well, what would you do if you could do anything?’”

Miller sounded disappointed as she continued her thought. “I think there’s individual pockets of people that really tried. But once again, then there was a whole other group of people that was like, ‘Why are we trying to do new things? It’s so hard to just do anything right now. Why also try to do something new?’”

Miller understood that feeling of exhaustion. She said, “It’s even exhausting to just find a new resource for that same thing that you need to teach every year. It’s much easier to use the same resource, especially when you’re emotionally exhausted, especially when your time is being dedicated to cleaning desks or answering emails instead of teaching.”

New curriculum

In the midst of the pandemic and the exhaustion felt by all teachers, the UCP government introduced a new curriculum that was created in over a year-and-a-half. Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said the curriculum was developed to “leave behind educational fads and unproven methods of discovery or inquiry learning.” 

Jason Schilling, the president of the Alberta Teachers Association, called the hastily constructed curriculum “fatally flawed” and said, “many of the teachers believe that putting it before children will cause harm.”

Teachers began teaching the new curriculum in September of 2022.  

(See Part One . Part 3 TBP )

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