Teaching in the age of COVID-19

December 2020
Wendy Schneider

When Hamilton schools abruptly suspended in-person classes last March, teachers and students were forced to quickly adapt to the new reality of remote learning. But after six months of a forced hiatus from the classroom, a majority of Kindergarten to Grade 12 students across the province returned to in-person classes in September. Eight weeks into the new school term, the HJN talked to teachers and post-secondary educators within the community to get a picture of how they and their students  are coping with new realities. 

On the morning of Oct. 5, which marked Teachers Day in Canada, Mohawk College educator Alice Mendelson wrote the following words on her Facebook page: “Every day that I teach is possible because some other glorious person is teaching my four wonders. Every day, teachers take them in, celebrate who they are, and create islands of learning, of fun, of community—amidst stress, uncertainty and illness.” 

Mendelson’s words ring particularly true at a time when teachers’ responsibilities now include making sure their students follow a myriad of new safety protocols, not to mention the challenge of wearing a mask for hours every day and concerns about their own health. Below are summaries of our conversations with elementary school teachers who are back in their classrooms this fall.

1. How did teachers feel about going back to school? 

The simple answer is ‘concerned.’ Dora-Ann Cohen Ellison, who teaches kindergarten with the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board said she was “a little apprehensive” about managing a play-based program with so many new protocols.

 “Our kids are so little. Some are only three years old ... They touch everything,” she said. 

A second concern for Cohen Ellison was for her family’s safety.  

“I am a teacher. My husband works in a congregant living setting within the public sector and I have my own kids who go to Kehila. What happens if my own kids get sick, or if I get sick? And I am not talking just about COVID-19. Even if I get a regular cold, I can’t go to work.” 

After cancelling all classes back in March, the Hamilton Hebrew Academy reopened its daycare program in July. Preschool teacher Joy Zians, who suffers from asthma, was nervous.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” she said.  Putting all the new safety protocols in place was “a lot of work,” she said, but what really put her mind to rest was seeing how well the children adapted. “The kids are so resilient. They just want to be loved.” 

Bob Childs, a secular studies teacher at the HHA said his early concerns about returning to the classroom were eased by the administration’s consideration for staff safety. 
“We had a lot of open Zoom meetings before we started. How we were going to run our classrooms ... what safety measures we would like to have ...  so that we would feel safe, as well as the children in that environment,” he said.  
Childs spent the opening weeks of school making sure his Grade 3 and 4 students understood and felt comfortable with new protocols, which included wearing masks at all times and using designated entrances, bathrooms, and a playground section assigned to their particular cohort. 

“I think the Academy has done one excellent job,” said Childs. “I feel safer going into the classroom than I do going in to the grocery store because I know that everyone is focused on the proper way to do things.”

2. How are the kids doing?

Kehila Heschel Kindergarten and Grade 1/2 teacher Linda Geva, said that, while getting used to the new protocols was overwhelming, staff and students have adjusted well to the new routines. 

“It’s going great ...We wear face masks, wash our hands, use hand sanitizer. The kids listen to the rules and follow the rules. They go with the flow and adapt to whatever the situation is,” she said. 

Cohen Ellison said her students have been “amazingly resilient and adapted so much more quickly and easily than even adults have.” 

Of her Junior Kindergarten students, Zians says, “I think their emotional and social well-being is in good shape actually,” other than occasional incidents that reveal the underlying stress that children have absorbed simply by living through these unprecedented times. For example, one day during circle time, a child suddenly exclaimed, “Mrs. Zians, she’s too close to me.”  Zians responded calmly and asked the second child to move over.

“When you lend your calm to someone, then they lend their calm to someone and it’s a trickle down effect. Then everybody’s in a better space,” said Zians.

Shauna Eisenberg teaches Kindergarten and Grade 8 at an inner city school. While her Kindergarten students have adapted well to her school’s new protocols, the situation is more complex with her older students.

“A lot of them are struggling. They’re happy to be back but they’re really frustrated by a lot of the rules,” she said, especially those that stipulate staying within a confined area during recess. 

“This is their outdoor time. It’s a concrete square they’re allowed in. They can’t talk to their friends in other classes and there’s very little space to run and play.”

For the most part, however, Eisenberg said her students are doing much better than she had feared. 

“I was really nervous about coming back and what kind of state the kids were in and I’ve been really amazed at how well most of them are doing.” 

The challenges in education this fall are difficult for everyone, but special education students are especially vulnerable. These students may be more overlooked than usual because of new demands placed on teachers during the pandemic and the need for a well-established resource team has never been more important, said Ali Ostrowski, coordinator of the HHA’s Student Success Centre. When the HHA suspended classes last March, Ostrowski continued working with her students online, a transition her students adapted to easily.

“So many kids did so well online,” she said. “We were able to leverage their strengths and their focus.” 
Ostrowski now works with students separated by a plexiglass divider an average of 20 minutes at a time three to five times a week. Teachers regularly tell her how students return to class more calm and confident after working with her. 

That’s not to say that all students are sailing through this COVID-19 period. Ostrowski, whose additional responsibilities include screening students as they come into the building every morning, has observed that children with a propensity towards anxiety are having a hard time.

But Ostrowski has also observed something positive during her morning routine.  

“Because of COVID, we have a system of rules ... and a consistency,” she said, that is having an impact on how students see themselves. “We are rule followers! I have a routine. I sanitize my hands. I answer the questions. I follow the green line to go to my class ...  the overarching system ... is regimented and structured and I think it’s something the children ... are really benefitting from and really responding to.”

3. Challenges faced by teachers and their students

Demands on teachers have increased significantly since the start of the pandemic. In addition to making sure students are wearing their masks, washing their hands and keeping a safe distance from one another, teachers in the Jewish day schools are facing the demand of simultaneously teaching in-person and to children joining in on Zoom from their homes. 

For teachers like Dora-Ann Cohen Ellison, the start of the school year, also meant losing her childcare options. 

“The first couple of weeks were tricky,” she told the HJN.  “Everyone in my house got sick at different times, with colds. And because we are not seeing grandparents right now, we couldn’t just call and say, ‘Can you come watch them for the day while I go to work?’ It’s difficult because our support system is not there.”

When it comes to challenges students are facing, Shauna Eisenberg noticed her Grade 8 students struggling to stay awake after lunch at the beginning of the school year.

“I’m just amazed at how exhausted they are.  It’s definitely been a tough transition getting back for them as far as energy and sleep goes,” she said. 

4. The best thing about being back in school

While many teachers spent the summer months feeling anxious about returning to the classroom, Shauna Eisenberg’s anxiety was focused on her students’ well-being. That’s because she knew that many of them relied on the daily healthy snacks, lunches and weekly bags of groceries provided by her school’s nutrition program. 

To Eisenberg, the best part of being back is “just seeing all the kids ... knowing that they’re safe and being fed and doing okay and if they’re not doing okay, I can be there to support them.”

Eisenberg’s deep commitment to her profession was echoed by all the teachers interviewed for this story, including HHA teacher Bob Childs, who perhaps spoke for everyone when he said, “Teaching is almost a mission for me right now.”

The post-secondary situation

As she was preparing an introduction to her online course this fall, Mohawk College educator Alice Mendelson included the following note to her students. 

The course is the course, she wrote to them, “but your well-being is what’s important to me so feel free to reach out.”
Mohawk College’s Career Pathway Program, where Mendelson teaches, is designed specifically for students with a learning disability, autism or mental health challenges who want to develop academic and career-ready skills for future post-secondary study and employment.

The HJN reached out to Mendelson in early October to find out how things were going.

“From the students’ perspective, I actually think they feel really comfortable because they don’t have the added pressure of having to take public transportation to get to Mohawk, so they’ve been really happy and engaged,” she said. “From my perspective, I feel like I’m not able to reach out to many of the students in a real and meaningful way because so much of what we do is that personal connection. So, all of these years that we’ve spent dedicating ourselves to this job that we love that makes it exciting to get up every day, that’s not what we’re doing anymore. But I think the same can be said for everyone who’s doing something that they didn’t sign up to do.”

What is she doing that she sign up for?

“It’s definitely not teaching. It’s trying to connect with someone over a computer, which is just really challenging. You’re not there. You’re not beside them. There’s no space for you to meet with them, in the hall, outside of class, before class.”

Since the start of the school year, Mendelson is spending six hours a day teaching online. As hard as she works to keep the students engaged, the playing field is uneven. Many of her students are working from a shared bedroom or communal space using old technology or unstable Wi-Fi connections that prevent them from fully engaging with her or the course material.

“They’re already vulnerable from the get go, and then you put them in this situation. So from a teaching perspective, it’s just so disheartening when you see that kind of inequity play out.” 

McMaster University professor Celia Rothenberg spent her summer learning the technology that would allow her to record and upload lectures for the second-year undergraduate course she’s teaching on Spirits, Ghosts, and Demons. The 180 students enrolled in the course listen to lectures according to their own schedules and are required to check in weekly for either online quizzes or discussions.  With 22 years of teaching experience, Rothenberg knows how to time her lectures to fill a 50-minute time slot, so she was quite surprised to discover that she could record a lecture in a fraction of the time.

“Somehow, (recording the lecture in advance) is so much less fueling for the creativity process that I just don’t think of the same connections to make, whether it’s to ongoing events in the world or to material we already discussed. My pretty well-timed 45-minute lectures are now taking 15 minutes.”

Another thing that adds to the feeling of disconnection is the phenomenon of online office hours. Rothenberg and her teaching assistants alternate waiting in an empty Zoom room for a student to come and talk to them. 

“Not one of us has had a student come yet. We just finished week four,” she said. 

“I’ve had two quizzes. Those would (normally) get students coming in and there’d be a huge amount of interaction with students before and after class. So not one of us has had a single student come for Zoom office hours. Very strange. Very disconnected.”

 Does it worry her?

“I’m not really very worried, no. but it’s absolutely unsatisfying. It’s like running a course on autopilot.”

The other course Rothenberg is teaching this semester is a Zoom seminar for fourth-year students, during which two, sometimes three of the six students enrolled, keep their cameras off. 

“Between keeping the camera off and being muted, it means that the conversation is very stilted,” said Rothenberg.

“Without being able to read body language, it’s hard for me to gauge engagement, comprehension. It’s much more opaque than in person.”