The kids already have it down. From friends in the school yard keeping their distance to having your own supply of hand sanitizer with you all the time.
By Heather Hunter
When it was time for kids to return to school in Ontario, the government gave parents many start-date options between September and January. With COVID-19 case numbers mounting each day, hesitant parents were having trouble deciding whether to put their children into a real or a virtual class – right up until the last possible minute. Some teachers didn’t know where or what they would be teaching until the day before classes began.
The TDSB scrambled to hire more teachers after seeing higher than expected enrolment in virtual learning. Some teachers were assigned subjects and levels they had never taught before. Retired teachers were asked by the College of Teachers to return. After Thanksgiving, classes were reshuffled as parents changed their minds. Small classes were collapsed to form big classes, some with multiple grades, making physical distancing impossible. John A. Leslie P.S. went from having 29 staff to 18. Kindergarten teacher Ms. Berthelet started the year with 18 students, but now has 24 (an improvement over last year’s 30) – at least until parents change their minds and classes are reshuffled again. Berthelet fears she may be re-deployed and not be able to continue with her ‘lovely’ class, which is finally running smoothly after weeks of working on routines. She says that “it is hard to get into it, though, when everyone is anticipating a closure.”
Some children found they had no teacher for their virtual class until October. Virtual teaching is different from the online courses offered in the spring. In real-time, teachers instruct the whole class, small groups or individuals, entertain questions, and receive their finished work. The system is working and kids and parents are thankful to be reconnected with their teachers.
However, it is obvious that many children have too much technology in their lives. Some enter JK not knowing how to write their names or even how to hold a pencil. At first, they sit at activity centers and do nothing, waiting to be entertained. The learning gap is very evident after being home for months. They don’t know how to line up. “When one kid stops, they all pile into each other and distancing is wiped out.” Without routines and socializing, children become quite feral.
With COVID-19 protocols, in-school teaching has changed a great deal. Berthelet feels like a novice even though she is a veteran with 15 years of experience. “We are constantly adjusting the way we used to do things and discovering new strategies. So much was not thought of; it will never be perfect. We are doing everything we used to do but it takes longer.”
Every child in Berthelet’s kindergarten class has their own bin with activities in zip-locked bags. Each individual stash contains literary kits, magnetic boards, crayons, pencils, and more. Everything in it is theirs, and they like it. Ironically, sharing is not allowed. “I have my own stuff and no one is allowed to touch it,” pronounced a proud 5 year old. There are fewer disputes now because the kids have little freedom; everything is controlled. In ways, it is a return to a more traditional classroom and teaching style.
After the first day, Berthelet sighed, “Today was awful. I feel like all we did was say, no, and hand wash.” By the end of the first week things were on-track. “They are getting the hang of it. It is all the JK’s know… We aren’t supposed to touch them, but I have to help them. They’re so little and they get frustrated. I just wash my hands a lot. My nails are separating from the nail beds.” The students wash their hands after every activity and before they go home, singing the Happy Birthday song to measure the 20 seconds of necessary washing.
“I see all these little noses above their masks. I have to constantly remind them to keep them on (their faces, not their foreheads or knees).” One little boy keeps taking his off. “It falls down. I don’t like it!” A little girl with a puddle inside her mask asked, “Can I change my mask? It’s all wet.”
There is no carpet time. They sit two per table, but not 6’ apart. It is impossible with so many students. When Berthelet reads to them, she stands far away and wears a visor. Students cannot understand her when she wears a mask that muffles her voice. They take a break from masks and shields when outside, but kids tend to congregate together outdoors and have to be constantly reminded to stay apart.
Parents cannot come into the school, so putting on snowsuits and boots will be a big hassle. “I just keep smiling and thinking ‘You poor little things’, but the parents tell me they love school.” Teachers communicate with parents on Google Classroom. Parents are so thankful and the children are happy to be with others and out of their homes. One little girl asked, “When the virus is gone, will we have more friends in our class?”
“Yes, honey. We will.”