I had the unique opportunity to work and teach in an (almost) empty middle school twice last year as the pandemic raged around its walls, locking everything down here in Toronto. Teachers were sent home to “teach” from computer screens, while skeleton-crew administrations were given the monumental task of keeping our public schools from imploding under the weight of the stressful lockdowns.
It’s fitting that I should jot down a few of my more important musings about the experience, as I gear up for another round as a supply teacher in the Toronto District School Board in less than a week’s time. The shadow of a fourth wave of Covid-19 looms, and as a teacher, I am not one for forgetting lessons that have stuck themselves deeply in my core as a result of what I experienced in-person.
My cousin, who lives and works as a teacher in Austria, was astounded that I was still working in schools amidst the Ontario lockdowns last spring and winter. To explain, I had the unique opportunity to co-teach in a MID (Mildly Intellectually Delayed) mixed grade 7 and 8 class. Ontario (thankfully) kept the doors open for in-person learning for all exceptional students in Special Education programs, whilst the rest of the student population retreated behind computer screens at home for the larger part of the school year to engage in virtual learning.
So, I got to experience something truly unique, and of which I would constantly remind my special set of students that we might never get to enjoy/learn from again: we got an entire middle school to ourselves (albeit under much more stringent health and safety measures) in which we can continue to learn and grow together, in person (with some semblance of normalcy)!
It took some getting used to the pervading silence in the hallways, classrooms, staff rooms, and offices. The administration continued to work in the school office, and the caretakers kept the lights on, the grass cut and the water running. We were a skeleton crew on a ghost ship sailing in uncharted waters. You can’t imagine my feelings early on, prior to any sort of provincial vaccine plan, as I would suit up daily in my layers of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), say my prayers for myself and loved ones, and submit my daily health screening. And then, open up the doors to my classroom and welcome these wonderful students to another day of uncertainty. Behind my well-intentioned facade of “smiling teacher-face” I carried the same fear(s) that every other adult – teacher, parent or otherwise has carried throughout these strange covid times – a fear of succumbing to a virus that has brought our way of life to a standstill.
I learned quickly to embrace the day-to-day uncertainty which the pandemic wrought. To take advantage of the situation, I could engage my students with all of the school’s resources without having to schedule or reserve anything. We played organized games of floor hockey or basketball almost daily. We could leave all our equipment in the gym, ready to use again when the students so wished. If they wanted any kind of book or comic from the library I could go grab it, disinfect it, and bring it to them on a whim. We would go for walks outside on the empty school track or play soccer in the empty recess fields. If they wanted to see the local neighborhood or visit nearby jungle gyms – I’d grab a big bottle of hand sanitizer, the walkie-talkie – tell them to bring their water bottles and an extra face mask – and off we’d go! We’d have lessons and grand discussions from the empty auditorium stage, pretending that we were presenting to a full and eager crowd of other students. At times, some students would sign in virtually when they couldn’t make it to school for one reason or another – so we’d carry their bobbing “chrome-book” heads around with us as we’d move through the days’ lessons. Sometimes it’d make me feel like we were in a real-life science fiction movie – and we were the in-person control subjects!
I tried my best to make everything seem normal for the students. They continued to learn, grow and socialize with each other, while we maintained stringent health and safety regulations laid out by the province. Doing so in a completely empty school was weird to us all at first – for obvious reasons – but the combined efforts of my Educational Assistants, the other teacher and the administrators still present in the school meant that these exceptional students were able to continue getting important elements of their education and growth that would’ve been impossible if they were relegated to virtual learning for the duration of the school year. I am proud of what we were able to accomplish despite the obvious challenges/difficulties of in-person teaching in a pandemic. We were able to still bring a measure of joy and respite to a select group of students, who would have otherwise struggled to navigate this unfair (i.e. entirely online) educational landscape. I know for a fact that the parents of these students were so grateful that we were able to continue doing our jobs in-person.
I must give a shout-out to the legislators and administrators who had the foresight to keep Special Education programs open and operating amidst the 2nd and 3rd wave of the pandemic here in Ontario. Many of these students wouldn’t have been able to keep up with an online/virtual program – for various reasons – and would’ve fallen through the cracks caused by the lockdowns. Equity issues aside, it gave me a unique opportunity to continue honing my teaching craft in a highly unlikely (and special) scenario that the vast majority of Canadian citizens will never experience, nor will they ever see again (knock on wood). I prided myself on being flexible enough to go along with the new lockdown reality – where some of us could remain safe holed up in our kitchens, teaching into the internet void, and where others, like me, felt like we were literally on the front lines (c.f. Teaching in-person, unvaccinated, in a deadly pandemic), battling in the educational trenches, uncertain if that day was to be our last because we contracted a killer virus by no fault of our own. I felt like I served my community in a very valuable, very specific, and very courageous way. I believe society should be more indebted to supply teachers who chose to (and continue to) put their lives on the line with in-person teaching, for the sake of their communities and the health of the student population
In the 3rd wave, as the federal vaccine program was beginning to be rolled out, priority was given to older and more vulnerable segments of the Canadian population. I was given priority because the TDSB/government knew I was a supply teacher with a long term contract working in a high-risk environment. Around the same time, one of my educational assistants whom I worked with daily, fell ill with covid, and hauntingly, never returned to our class. We went through the whole lockdown/testing procedure that followed such events, but we were quickly back in class as the contract tracers determined that it was an external case. I am sad to say that not long after, this educational assistant passed away from covid/complications, leaving behind a young family. Our entire (little) school community was (understandably) shaken. We had a virtual memorial, and I, along with the students, planted a memorial azalea in the front of the school. There were lots of tears, and many important lessons about life and death and caring for your fellow citizens. The students made a bulletin board memorial – facing our classroom, in an empty hallway, to remember and to grieve in the silence that followed.
In retrospect, considering that the horror of covid was brought front-row and center for all of us, and not just the scary statistics that blared constantly from 24-hour news stations – it was, a teachable moment that I’ll never forget, nor I believe, will any of the students or the wider school community. That azalea still stands proudly at the front of the school.
When the rest of the students arrive next week, after being away since the April lockdown, the azalea will both welcome and warn them with a super-important lesson: to never take certain things for granted, and to be thankful for everything (both big and small) that we do to make our school communities places of love and joy – even as we continue to be “socially distant” from each other. We must ensure that, as dedicated, caring and resilient educators, the learning never stops, even in the most unlikely of scenarios.
Stay safe everyone,
B.A Hons., MT, OCT