I have added “We are building the plane while flying it” to my scrapbook of COVID-speak. It’s an apt description for teaching during the pandemic. I can barely remember what it was like to be in a classroom without a mask and face shield; where students could sit together rather than two metres apart; where we could roam freely and pass objects back and forth without having to disinfect everything, including ourselves. Those carefree days before PPE replaced PE seem like a distant memory, a hazy dream. When life as we knew it changed last March, that dream quickly became a stress nightmare. It was as if I had turned up to a test I hadn’t studied for. Or as if I had entered an altered reality where my school had been reduced to a blank void. Welcome to the “new normal.”
It’s not just students who’ve done a lot of learning this past year. It’s been back to the drawing board, or blackboard, for most teachers too. We had to scramble to adjust how we ran our courses and to figure out unfamiliar and unwieldy web-based systems — all as we tried to maintain the appearance of control. These programs posed a challenge for the most technologically savvy among us. And while a few more old-school staff members were loath to leave behind their overhead projectors, some changes, I think we can agree, have been for the better.
In the first lockdown, when schools had to pivot to emergency distance learning, students completed work on their own time. And there were accessibility issues due to lack of available computers and poor connections (slow internet still causes problems). When a new year started in the fall, my school in Oakville, Ontario, where I teach math and English, divided classes into cohorts that alternated between in-person and online learning. Some students elected to remain at home full-time and attend the newly created Virtual Secondary School, a remote option that might become a permanent fixture. Different boards have come up with different solutions, none of which are perfect. The changes in approach have been confusing to follow, especially as we learn of the Ministry of Education’s decisions at the same time as the public.
Semesters were replaced by quadmesters, which condensed the length of courses by half and forced us to double up our lessons. Multiply this switch by larger online class sizes — because apparently teaching this way is easier — and the result is emotional and mental exhaustion. I struggle to shut down my computer, and my brain, at the end of the day. It’s not unusual to receive panicked emails from students (many of whom are night owls) past midnight about an assignment that’s due in less than eight hours. And if it’s not students, it’s their anxious parents. But what can we do? It’s our job to provide structure and support. We want the best for our kids, and we’re aware of our responsibility to make this arrangement as stimulating and accommodating as we can. We also need to care for ourselves, though. Often we forget to do that.
The virus lurks constantly in the background, and it will continue to do so until vaccines are available across all fronts. Before the second school shutdown — after the winter break, when daily cases were again in the multiple thousands — we became accustomed to frequent notes from our principal announcing another positive case. And these alerts keep coming.
There are different layers of concern for the long-term impact — both in relation to teacher burnout and for the development of the so‑called COVID generation. What children learn from school is much more than facts and figures: it’s interpersonal skills, boundaries to test, and the beginning of a path toward finding their own way. Some of my students have loved learning from home, which makes me wonder how easy it will be for them to return to face-to-face classes. Others have found it difficult to adjust to being cooped up without the freedom of friends and cafeteria hangouts. It’s bizarre to think that many of my grade 9s have experienced high school only through a screen. They may not set foot inside a physical classroom until grade 10 — and maybe not even then. We’re not sure what will happen come September.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. The strangeness of the online environment, the adjustments to new platforms, and perhaps collective cabin fever have made for some hilarious classes — those moments of genuine connection, where there’s a strong sense of community, even while we’re not present in the same room. I’ve met and worked with many more teachers than I would usually, and my colleagues’ collaboration and willingness to share digital resources have been heartening in a time when we’re unable to vent over coffees.
At the end of last quad, after weeks where it had been like pulling teeth to get students to turn on their cameras (typically, I stare at a silent grid of anime characters), I saw a group of smiling faces who waved and said thank you. It’s the little things, those sweet interactions, that still make teaching rewarding. It’s the laughs I can get for appearing as if I’m in front of a mountain range or floating through a galaxy of stars — and yes, funky backgrounds are low-hanging fruit, but we all need a lift sometimes. Because in the COVID language of isolation, distance, and protection of the self and others, it’s these relationships that matter. Teachers are still worried, still cautious, but we’re working hard to keep that plane in the air.