Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Oh--What's a Teacher to Do?

Starting next Friday, secondary students in my board will be forced to be in a room with about 15 other students they might not know, many of whom will take off their masks for a 45 minute mid-morning snack deemed necessary to get them through to lunchtime dismissal. They're not exactly forced, since they can choose, instead, to be exclusively distance learning, but that comes with a risk of losing their electives and possibly a more difficult time with complex instructions. So that's not much of a choice. And once they choose to be with a teacher in a classroom, then they're not permitted to leave that room while others unmask. 

It's like telling kids they can either get a ride to Toronto for a concert or watch it on TV, but if they take that ride, then they have to take off their seatbelts while they're on the 401. The car's not going to pull over to let you out if you change your mind! So, what's it going to be? Sure, it's a choice, but many kids will make the riskier choice, such as kids are. And, sure, they might all be totally fine. But they might not be. And then it will be our fault. It's ultimately Ford's and Public Health for approving this plan, but the board has to take some responsibility too since neighbouring boards don't have a secondary nutrition break. And teachers, on the front lines, also bare responsibility. 

I can't imagine what it's like to send a precious 4-year-old to their first day of school this year. Absolutely class sizes in elementary schools is a vital issue, but our hands are tied on that one locally because Ford decided NOT to use federal money to increase the number of teachers. Instead, he paid for level 1 masks (lowest barrier) that students and staff must use even though I just spent my own money on level 2 masks for myself and my daughter (moderate barrier). But eliminating the nutrition break by calling it a study break can significantly cut the risk of infection, and it costs nothing!!

After approaching specific individuals linked to our federation and to the board, and getting nowhere with that route, I made an appeal to the trustees. I wrote the letter below in hopes that demasking in class unnecessarily could be raised at their final monthly meeting before the start of school. At least I know I did everything I could to try to change a system that, I believe, is a planned failure. Ford plans to close the schools at the first sign of spread, bringing in his "stormtroopers" to shut it down. Many on Twitter make a Star Wars connection to that term, but, to me, the connection made should be to the assault detachment of the German army in WWI. Lovely. Ford has always been about online learning. This plan fits too perfectly to create this opportunity to further online teaching, which, of course, leads straight down the road to privatization as part of the neoliberal agenda. Nice move. The only feasible reason I can conjure to have a morning snack in our schools despite the risks is that maybe Ford chose our region to start the spread!

But we don't have to follow rules that don't make sense, right?!? Especially rules that will actively harm people. And especially when harm will come to children. I mean, isn't that what we were supposed to learn when we studied the world wars: the banality of evil from blind obedience and the noble path of speaking truth to power despite the personal consequences? And isn't Ford's admission that he's waiting for the virus to spread, for people to get sick and possibly die, in order to close the schools prove that the master plan is homicidal

I'm positively trembling in fear of this start. It IS going to be a disaster, and the virus will increase in spread. What's making me lose sleep, though, is this one simple little change that could be made to decrease the risk. I'm a very calm and contained person, but I find myself periodically bursting into tears over this. Walking to our PD sessions this week felt like walking to a firing squad and just hoping that they'll miss. This is the most terrifying situation I've ever been in, and I often sleep in bear country in a tent.

So, possibly as a result of my letter, one trustee asked how removal of masks at lunch will be managed (at 1:49), but there was no motion to alter that "nutrition break." The response, coming over our screens from a dear leader safely squirrelled away in a home office, was that we should encourage students to be "efficient with their time" and then have the class go outside for a period of time during the break even though it's been made very clear to us at my school, that students may not go outside during the break. I guess we'll tell them to eat quickly, hopefully silently, then have them just sit, taking to friends in other classes on their phones, waiting for the next learning block. Tra la la. 

Anyway, here's was my last ditch failed attempt to make our lives a little safer, sent last Sunday: 

TO: WRDSB School Trustees.

I'm writing both as a parent of a WRDSB student and as a teacher. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for continuing to listen and work through the issues with teaching during a pandemic. I understand the immense pressure the Ford government's education plan is putting on school boards, but this is a desperate plea to make some necessary changes to make our secondary schools safer. I know you want the very best for our students, and I'm fine with teaching 5 hours a day (3:45 in class and 1:15 online), and I'm even fine with still not knowing what I'm teaching next week, but I continue to question why we're not mitigating the risk to students and staff as much as we possibly can by eliminating the nutrition break in secondary schools so that everyone can keep their masks on in the building. We all know mask wearing is less risky than allowing kids to remove their masks since we've been told for months to keep masks on inside buildings, yet WRDSB is willing to accept that additional risk to our children's very lives in order for them to have a mid-morning snack trapped in a classroom. It's a risk that neighbouring boards (e.g. WCDSB and TDSB) are not taking, so any illnesses in our board won't be blamed on the government mandates, but on this board's decision. Changing the "nutrition break" to a "study break" will cost nothing to implement.

* If it's a problem with buses dictating start and stop times, then the nutrition break can move to just after the dismissal time and then that block between the learning blocks can be renamed a "study break". 

* If a nutrition break is a stipulation in the Education Act, then how did TDSB and WCDSB get around it? Surely we're as clever as they are and can follow their path through this mess. 

 * If it's a matter with our local collective agreement, then I'm sure a quick online vote of members can amend that section as part of a temporary emergency measure. 

* If it's due to pressure from some nutritional advisory committee, they can be asked to reexamine the risks of fasting for 4.5 hours relative to the risks of getting covid. Or consider putting the break after the learning sessions and allowing students to leave the building if they wish to eat. There are so many better options!

I'm standing up for the many teachers, parents, and students who are very concerned that our return to school plan is risking people's lives unnecessarily for the sake of a morning snack, but are too afraid to speak. However, I know that the board wants us to use our exceptional critical thinking skills even when it comes to their own policies. The board's focus must be on preventing disease transmission, not merely having a resigned expectation that we will have to deal with an outbreak eventually. An enclosed room, less than 2 meters apart, and masks off is the very opposite of what we've been told to do all this time.

Ideally the mid-morning nutrition break should be eradicated for all so that masks are explicitly mandatory at all times for anybody in our schools, but, if for some mysterious but justifiable reason that plan is not possible, then at the very least students who do not want to be in a room when others take off their mask must be allowed to wait in the hallway until masks are back on (since our masks don't protect us, but protect others), AND we must implement a no-talking rule while masks are off to eat since talking spreads the virus ten times as much as just breathing (Jimenez). These have to be instructions coming from the board and not left for principals to decide or inequitable levels of safety will arise in our schools. I can ask my own students to consider not eating or to consider not talking until they're masked again, but I'm not allowed to supervise my own students. I'll be supervising a different teacher's class on the days I don't teach. This supervision rotation gives teachers even less control over a room of students they don't know.

How can the board, in good conscience, insist that the risk is reduced enough by having kids cough into their elbow, wash their hands, and stay 1 meter apart while having masks off in the classroom, when surely it's clear to all of us at this point that the risk could be reduced significantly more by eliminating the morning snack?? I understand public health has signed off on this plan, which, it has been suggested, means it must be safe. But the 1 meter standard in schools is a product of the Ford government overruling public health officials (Lowrie). Insisting that 1 meter distancing is safe without masks on because some public health advisor said so is an Orwellian bit of newspeak. Even the New York Times weighed in on what a bad plan Ontario has developed compared to the rest of Canada. But just because Ford has low standards, doesn't mean the WRDSB has to bend that low. We are all responsible for our actions even if we choose to follow instructions that aren't providing the best possible outcome for our students. We have to think through the effectiveness of the plan for ourselves, and it is so obviously lacking. Mandating that schools blindly follow questionable public health guidance for little benefit could potentially eliminate all the strides we have made in the past six month. Furthermore, these rules in our school could be used by students to justify close unmasked contact outside of school as well. WRDSB is setting a precedent for unsafe behaviours.

The science is unambiguous on this: masks reduce the spread of viral particles. This is an airborne plague, so cleaning surfaces is far less important than wearing masks (Thompson). Some infectious disease specialists insist that eating in the classroom promotes the highest risk of infection (Sing). So, worst of all, to me, is that when the board insists that it's acceptable to have students take off their masks in the building because public health says so, it feels as if it is just a means for the board to avoid litigation and pass on responsibility for the safety of our children. If board members really believe it's safe to be unmasked in a group of 15 complete strangers - cohorts are not bubbles - then why are meetings over Zoom? They appear to have one standard for themselves and another for employees and our children, which just shows that they know being in a room without masks on is unsafe. I haven't been in the same room with my own son without a mask on since March because he's not living with us, so he's not in our bubble. We're having a family meal together this weekend, outside and distanced, in case my daughter and I don't make it to Thanksgiving without getting the virus.That's neither hyperbole nor hysteria, but a realistic assessment of this situation given these parameters and the experiences of school boards who have opened unsuccessfully.

We're already seeing numbers jump in places that have opened with these similar conditions. After their school outbreak in Israel (Kershner), daily cases increased from 100/day before school to 60,000/day after opening in a population of 9 million, and experts there insist we must learn from their mistakes and have smaller classes, with constant mask wearing, students 2 meters apart, with ventilation at the very minimum. Ontario, with 14.5 million people, had 148 new cases yesterday (CBC), so our starting point is very similar. (We had 103 cases in total on our last day of school in March.) Merely screening for symptoms ignores the 45% of the people who have the virus without any symptoms and the fact that the other 55% are contagious for a time before showing symptoms, and children can carry the virus a long time without symptoms (Han). Most people who get the virus don't suffer the worst effects--that struggle for air that has been compared to being waterboarded, but many will have long lasting effects that range from losing a sense of taste for months to permanent disabilities (Dans and Reilly). Is that mid-morning snack worth increasing the chance that some of our students and staff will experience this?

I know the WRDSB plan has already been approved, but now that we know that TDSB and WCDSB made one without an in-class nutrition break, surely this is important enough to weather the inconvenience of implementing changes. The prospect of just one dead child or employee should weigh heavily on the board's conscience as they continue to insist that it's safe for teenagers and teachers to be 1 meter apart without a mask on when we're indoors. Teachers should have the same protections as board employees and every other workplace. Until the board starts having meetings in one room together, 1 meter apart and unmasked, it will appear that the WRDSB is remaining willfully ignorant of the real risks as they are applying their rules to employees only and intentionally jeopardizing the lives of students and staff. This may be upsetting to read, but, trust me, it's far less painful than walking into a building knowing our lives are expendable to our employers. If the board is wrong on this, it's not just a matter of correcting a clerical error; lives will be lost. Since it's very easy to reduce the risk of infection from Covid a far more significant amount by requiring continuous mask-wearing in the building, then why isn't WRDSB taking that measure? Is having a granola bar mid-morning really worth catching a virus that can have lifelong deleterious effects? I sincerely hope our board will step up to be the leaders they claim to be and insist that the well being of our children and their families, and, by extension, our entire community, is worth more than that.

Thank you very much for making it the end of this missive. I hope you can use my words to convince the board that WRDSB is taking unnecessary risks in promoting mask removal in our schools for the break.

And then, as a final, final last resort, I sent this to my school this morning, urging teachers to diminish the risk as much as possible themselves, which is the stated goal of all the Covid planning we're doing:

The WRDSB Covid Training Module* says the predominant way to get Covid is being within 2 meters, for more than 15 minutes, if one or both individuals are not wearing PPE. This is exactly what our students will be exposed to during the nutrition break. I've tried every means I know of to get the board to prevent eating at school, but it appears it's here to stay despite everyone's better judgment, including the board's training video!! 

Officially, in our communications with classes, it could be absolutely life-saving to refer to the break informally as a morning snack so students don't think of it as a lunch break. That use of "snack" instead of nutrition break might be enough to help students and parents keep the amount of food to the bare minimum, just enough to tide them over until lunch at home. Students can also be asked to eat silently and quickly (or "efficiently") since talking spreads ten times the aerosols as breathing, and the longer masks are off, the greater the chance of spread. As soon as everyone's done eating, and all masks are on, then students can chat. Instead of having students face the front, I plan to have them face the nearest wall of the classroom when their masks are off, where possible. Students who are not eating could be invited to sit closest to the windows. 

Unofficially, although I realize we're to keep all students in the classroom during the break, I'm left to wonder what's the worst that would happen to a supervising teacher if they let a few non-eating students sit in the hallway, who are totally stressed out by the demasking of other students in the classroom, just for the brief time that in-class students are quickly eating their snack?? At the recent board meeting, it was suggested that students could go outside during the break. I understand how difficult that would be to manage, but that does seem to give us some leeway, at the very least, to allow a few masked students to be silent, stationary, and seated individually in the hallway. Not that I'm promoting civil disobedience, of course, but some teachers just might consider risking the consequences in order to potentially save a few lives! Just a thought!


(*I know I didn't have to watch that module yet, but it seems pretty timely! Knowledge is power - or it should be, amirite?? And I'm getting antsy waiting for the new calendar of dates and final timetables before I start prepping courses.)

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