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VIU’s education students have had to adjust not only to learning during a pandemic but to teaching during one too.

Many education students at VIU took a heavy blow last March when schools shut down. Students in the education program participate in teaching practicums at local schools in their third, fourth, and fifth years of study, with the bulk of that practicum coming at the end of the semester. 

With no schools to teach in and no students to teach, education students were left with little to do but craft lesson plans. This all changed last semester when elementary schools reopened their doors. 

Unlike the uncharacteristically quiet VIU campus, Nanaimo’s elementary schools are full of life. Most elementary-age children are still attending school in person, which means teachers are too—including education students. In his final year of VIU’s five-year Bachelor of Education Program, Lee Vanden Ham is one such student.

Vanden Ham described last semester as, “Better, actually. The classes all moved online, which I personally enjoyed quite a bit. It just gave me more time to not have to go to and from school. And our practicums managed to stay in person, so we could actually go into the schools. It’s pretty cool getting back into it, but, you know, it was also terrifying because we’re mid-pandemic.”

Back in September, the BC government’s Back to School Plan provided all public school students and faculty with two masks for the semester each, and $9.2 million dollars across the province’s schools for hand sanitation. However, actually using the masks or hand sanitizer is only a recommendation. Faculty must wear their masks in highly trafficked areas such as hallways, but for students masks and sanitizer are entirely optional.

Nick Sutton, another education student in his final year of the program, was surprised upon his return to the classroom.

“Something I noticed right away is that rules were very severe on paper, but then when you get into actual practice, it’s a little harder to enforce them,” Sutton said. “There are so many moving parts. Teachers are sharing classrooms. They’re sharing spaces. And there are time constraints. There are no electives anymore, so you’re with the kids more and more… a lot of liberties [are] taken with the rules when it comes to the students ’cause it’s hard, especially with the young kids, to keep a mask on a six-year-old or an eight-year-old.”

You would be hard-pressed to find someone shocked to hear that it’s challenging to keep a mask on a six-year-old, but this fact highlights some risk factors. While consensus has not yet been reached in the scientific community regarding the full scope of children’s role in spreading COVID-19, the bottom line is that they are, at the very least, capable of spreading the virus. 

Confining children to cohorts was a strong start. Sutton explained that children take staggered recesses to avoid contact as much as possible, and lunch breaks occur in the classroom. Regardless, there is still some risk for all involved and, despite precautions, there was an exposure at a Nanaimo elementary school in early December.

Vanden Ham commented on this risk. “There was a brief period when the virus was starting to dribble in here and there, and we were like, aw jeez, I don’t know if I want to go. And that comes up quite a bit. But when it got a little bit scarier, wearing your mask and trying to keep your distance worked out okay. You can’t keep the kids apart, but you can do your best to keep your distance.”

It was important to both established and up-and-coming teachers that responsibility shift away from students and onto themselves.

“It’s a scary time, and the kids are scared,” Vanden Ham said. “We keep telling them there are all these rules—otherwise, Grandma will die or something, you know. And that’s really hard to hear as a kid.”

While students failing to wear masks increases the risk for teachers, it was a risk Vanden Ham was willing to take.

Vanden Ham explained that the school he was working at was “not the highest income school.” 

“There’s a lot of trauma and tantrums. There’s a lot of economic issues. Our focus is not going to be making sure they wear their mask, and if that’s going to make a kid explode and ruin the whole day, that’s probably not something that we’re going to deal with. You know? There are bigger issues sometimes. Even though it’s a global pandemic, there are bigger issues.”

Teachers aren’t only assuming more risks—they are also undertaking a more substantial workload. Before the pandemic, teachers would have time away from their class when their students would go to electives or lunch break. This time away from their students provided teachers with prep time throughout the day—time to perhaps adjust a lesson plan if the day had gone unexpectedly, or simply take a small break from dozens of children.

“Some of the veteran teachers were very displeased because they knew some of the stress and some of the work that came with having no prep or having prep at the end of the day and not having a break from the kids,” Sutton said.

Losing prep time has only made teachers have to prepare more. Additionally, if a student has a cold and has to stay home, teachers must prepare catch-up packages or help students transition online.

While most kids are still attending school in person, they are offered the option of online delivery—an opportunity some families are taking. Creating environments for online learning is a new frontier for most teachers, and implementing online education while also teaching in the classroom may require a bit of extra elbow grease. Still, the next generation of teachers are finding ways to make it work.

“I’m a big fan of online learning anyway, so the application of Google Classroom is huge,” Sutton said. “You can have student profiles. You can interact with their parents all at the same time, you can give work and hand out work fast, you can track progress. Online learning is awesome when done right.”

While the right tools can make the job easier, there are still issues to be worked through. 

“It’s a huge shift,” Sutton said. “I know a lot of the older teachers who are new to technology are struggling. And it’s less engaging with the students ’cause you’re staring at a screen instead of with your peers or with other students or teachers, so it’s a huge ask.”

Though teachers are trying their best to make online learning work, the change was abrupt. Sutton said that the systems currently in place seem very much like an afterthought. Google Classroom allows for engagement between students and teachers, but, Sutton said, “that’s never happened.” 

“It’s always been, ‘Here, I posted online,’ ‘Here, it’s online,’ [and] they go get it done.” 

So, what’s the missing link between students and meaningful online education? Sutton believes that the transition involves more than just the teacher-student relationship.

“I think that—and this is more of a personal opinion—it’s largely based around parents,” Sutton said. “Are the parents enforcing this? Are the parents getting their kids to practice at home? This goes along with all kinds of schooling. If your parents aren’t getting you to practice after school hours, then the learning isn’t going to stick. If the parents are enforcing it, then it works.”

Integrating an online element into the education system might be part of the new normal, and it’s an all-hands-on-deck issue. Luckily, some up-and-coming teachers like Sutton are getting their practice in now.

Public schools are an essential service, and teachers are essential workers. If anyone ever doubted those facts, the previous year’s events may have changed people’s minds. The role of schools is shifting in the public eye. But how has teaching through a pandemic changed education students’ views on the role of education?

“Teachers are frontline workers,” Vanden Ham said. “I know what we’ve witnessed when all the schools shut down and school didn’t happen—that’s when the panic of everything set in. Then school started up, and everyone can appease everything ’cause all of a sudden their kids can be taken care of.”

The BC government places public schools and teachers on their list of essential services and workers. Despite this, teachers are not receiving the government-funded temporary pandemic pay that some other frontline workers are seeing.

“We’re cheap, government-funded babysitting at some capacity, as brutal as it is to say,” Vanden Ham said. “There’s a lot that goes on in schools, there’s a lot of proper education going on, but we also take care of children during times when parents need to work. That’s just a fact, so we’re necessary. The school system is necessary, and compensation wouldn’t hurt.”

Taking care of the province’s children is a vital role, but it doesn’t come close to demonstrating just how essential the public school system is. Public schools play many roles in communities, and for many children from lower-income families that role can take the form of “breakfast, lunch—it’s food for these kids. It’s a way to get away from parents,” explained Vanden Ham.

“A lot of these kids don’t go home after school; they go to a park or a pool,” Vanden Ham said. “They only go home because that’s the only bed they have. School is a safe spot for a lot of kids too. So it is almost like a social service in that way, right? It’s a safe, warm meal, and somewhere, you know, to call home and not feel like they’re going to get berated by someone older than them, hopefully. I think [public opinion] has changed [in] that aspect, and people are starting to see that more clearly.” 

Despite the doom and gloom of it all, things aren’t all bad. Seeing students hoping to educate future generations and pushing through the unexpected hardships the pandemic has forced on us all is a breath of ‘fresh,’ mask-filtered air.

Restrictions have made a huge impact on the public school experience, but Vanden Ham sees a positive side regardless. 

“You really get to bond closer with a smaller group of people,” Vanden Ham said. “I think there’s a lot more compassion and patience both ways. Some kids will be difficult regardless—there’s a lot going on in their lives, and you have to work with that. But I think a lot of the ones who understand the circumstances, understand you as well a little bit better, and it’s because of that closer connection.”

Despite his circumstances, Sutton doesn’t seem phased at all. He will graduate at the end of the spring semester, and even though he doesn’t know what things will look like then, he still told me with a big smile, “I’m excited. I’m ready to do it—I’m ready to be a teacher.”

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