Note: Although the events described in this post are real, the author’s name and the name of the school are pseudonyms.
Dairn Alexandre, our guest blogger this week, works as a teacher in Alberta. He has a Diplôme d’Études Collégiales in Illustration & Design at Dawson College, a Bachelor of Education degree from McGill University, and is currently finishing up a Master of Education degree at Bishop’s University while also continuing to work as an illustrator. Dairn has two paintings on exhibition at the Avmor permanent collection in Montreal; has been a presenter and guest-lecturer at McGill University and at the University of Calgary; and has hosted sessions for Alberta’s Fine Arts Council. He lives with his wife, two kids, and dog.
The drizzle of rain gently marks the cracked concrete leading to the front doors of Deer Creek School. In the twenty years since it first opened, the structure’s once vibrant stucco façade has become worn and faded by the intense Alberta sun, reflecting the battered morale of the school’s staff working tirelessly within it.
Inside, old vandalism peeks through the freshly painted walls of the boys’ restroom; blue and white protective masks can be found soiled and discarded, tucked into the various nooks and crannies around the building; and loose paper leaks from the half-closed binders that rest precariously on the tops of the school’s maltreated desks, spilling onto the empty seats below them. Students can be found crowded together in the playground outside, seemingly unconcerned by the ongoing pandemic raging beyond the boundaries of their school or their teachers’ persistent admonitions to follow the governments’ guidelines for physical distancing. And despite it only being early December, the staff are already becoming exhausted and some are beginning to burn out.
The lunch bell rings.
Inside the school’s office, the sound of students shuffling down the hallways quietly drifts past the open doors as they head towards their classrooms again. A few of the school’s staff stand nearby, trying awkwardly to stay out of everyone’s way while encouraging students to keep a safe distance from one another. Teachers have been on constant supervision these days – the demands have increased substantially in response to the Alberta government’s COVID-19 protocols. The health and safety guidelines described by the government have encouraged the staff to actively watch over their students constantly, ensuring that these protocols are being met. Each of the three grade levels at Deer Creek School must enter the building through separate doors that have been designated to them in the hopes of limiting the community spread of the virus. While in their masks, students must immediately disinfect their hands before heading straight to their specified homeroom classes.
Once there, these young people will need to stay seated for the duration of the day – with the exception of a roughly one-hour daily Phys. Ed. period that requires everyone to remain masked at all times unless their classes take place outdoors. Because of the strenuous nature of these activities, students can find it difficult to breathe while keeping their faces covered. Finding adequate space for physical distancing on the school grounds can also be difficult for teachers. Since daily physical education is mandated, many of these teachers need to find creative solutions in order to get their students’ bodies moving, particularly as the colder winter months limit outdoor physical activities. And yet somehow, these teachers make do with what is available to them and persevere.
Outside of the gym, students are assigned one seat and one desk for the duration of the day and are discouraged from moving. Instead, teachers float from classroom to classroom, depending on the subjects that need to be taught. There are no lockers allocated to students this year. Nobody is permitted to enter or leave their ascribed room unless going to the washroom. Little to no groupwork is permitted. No physical materials can be shared. And there are no opportunities for students to remove their masks unless they are eating or drinking during their designated snack times. Understandably, the school community is starting to crack under these oppressive but necessary health measures, and continuously enforcing these protocols within the building can be viewed as an exercise in futility for the school’s staff. And even with all of these health and safety measures in place at these schools, Alberta is struggling to keep the number of COVID-19 cases down.
In Deer Creek School, two cohorts of 14-year-olds – around 60 students in total – and five teachers were recently put into isolation after two reported cases of the virus were reported in the building. In the last few days, teachers have been tasked with covering each other’s’ classes whenever they have a spare moment, out of absolute necessity. There has been a shortage of subs across the province due to the increasing number of teachers who are required to isolate and quarantine at home – many of whom are continuing to teach their classes remotely, almost immediately after being told by Alberta Health Services to sequester themselves. As a result, the staff at Deer Creek have had to help support one another in order to get by. Although the school boards in Alberta are trying their best to meet the health and safety guidelines laid out by the province, many of these systems are already running a deficit for the schoolyear and are continuously bleeding out funds to pay for extra cleaning staff, disinfectants, extra masks, sanitizers, substitute teachers, and staff who are taking leaves of absence. And like many educators across the province, teachers at this school have become progressively concerned with the increasing number of students and staff who are testing positive for COVID-19. It is hard for everyone to stay positive when every effort to thwart the virus seems to result in more infections, more isolations, and further restrictions for everyone.
In the last few weeks, some students have begun to knowingly break health protocols just to be around one another, to recapture some semblance of their former lives before the pandemic uprooted them and created a culture shock so disruptive that some are concerned that we may never return to our former ways of living.
The restrictive nature of these guidelines also means that students who attend the same school as many of their close friends may never actually see them. Instead, they will only ever see the same cohort of students. There is also little variety in how schools can approach instruction, design the classroom environment, and schedule students’ timetables. The monotony of daily school life has become psychologically crushing for some. It is only when students are temporarily released to congregate outside on the playground at lunchtime that the overwhelming desire for freedom can be too much for these young people, which can result in misbehaviors and increased insubordination.
Outside of the school boundaries, Albertans are similarly growing tired. Lately, the media have been giving increased attention to the COVID Cowboys – the dissenters of the public health guidelines and Trump-supporting protestors against masks and common sense that are gaining traction in Alberta and elsewhere. These rebels surround the compliant rule-followers, making it harder to enforce the province’s guidelines in the weeks leading up to the holidays. Like the students who are being asked to conform to the safety protocols being laid out in their schools, Albertans are becoming increasingly weary of being subservient to the needs of the larger community. They long for their previously established culture free from masks, physical distancing protocols, and hand sanitizer that has the viscosity of thick, oily egg whites.
But this is not the time to think of our own individual rights and freedoms.
Prior to the pandemic, and even during the early months at the onset of the virus’ spread across the country, masking oneself in public was unheard of in Alberta. But now, as a province and as a country, we should accept it for what it is: Masks are a part of our collective identity, a symbol of unity that binds all of us together. This is the new abnormal.
In the end, it is hard to know whether the decisions made by the Government of Alberta to reopen schools in September 2020 – which made masking optional in some of the lower grades and kept the ratios between teachers and students high – were the right choices to make. Only time will tell. And despite all of the issues mentioned above, if schools must remain open, then teachers will need to continue with these restrictive measures because it is likely what’s best for all Canadians. And, hopefully, we will carry on through it all.
With governments calling for everyone to stay apart over the holidays, to physically distance at work and in schools, and to isolate if feeling unwell, it may seem counterintuitive to state that we also need to band together right now. But, metaphorically, we must. We cannot lose sight of the fact that the only way we are going to get through this pandemic is by having a unified front. Now more than ever, we need to depend on and support each other. And as uncomfortable as this whole experience had been for many of us, like the teachers and students at Deer Creek School, we should be grateful that we didn’t have to go through it alone. From the health care workers protecting our communities to the COVID-infected trying their best to get through this in one piece to the healthy majority who have become fearful of their neighbours, friends, and families, we need to depend on each other in order to survive this.
Because we are all in this mess together.
For better or worse.