Supporting students in an evolving pandemic
Reprinted from the How’s Work? Life in the Workplace issue of Visions Journal, 2022, 17 (3), pp. 16-17
The last day of school before an extended break should be a joyous one. Hallways and classrooms are abuzz with carefree chatter. Students and staff breathe one big, happy sigh of relief. Worries melt away and there’s a celebratory feeling in the air.
This wasn’t the case for me on Friday, March 13, 2020.
As a secondary teacher, I help young people seek truths. Normally, when a student asks a question I don’t know the answer to, I enthusiastically reply, “Let’s find out together!” It’s a crucial part of my teaching philosophy—I want to model curiosity, and I want students to feel I’m their partner in learning journeys.
During the early days of the pandemic, you might imagine how difficult this was to put into practice. Confusion and misinformation about COVID-19 had been growing for a few weeks. Governments and leaders were conflicted about the science and health guidelines (to wear a mask or not to wear a mask?), and social media spread rumors that infiltrated my classroom. Students had questions and I felt like I was flailing to find answers.
More important than any aspect of teaching is our commitment to keeping students safe. This includes helping students feel safe. So on that Friday before our two-week spring break I did my best to reassure everyone: I smiled and joked, I asked questions about their plans and I congratulated them on nearing the end of the school year. This was an exhausting performance because I felt helpless inside and my heart wasn’t in it. I was so drained by the end of that day that I went home, collapsed on my couch and shut down for the whole weekend.
When I was ready to face the world again, it wasn’t the one I wanted or needed to re-enter. On March 17 I learned, along with everyone else in BC, that public schools would remain closed following the end of spring break. After that I spent my “vacation” worrying about students and how they and their families would struggle with this news. I tried to take care of myself, but I was concerned about everyone, especially the more vulnerable students and families.
At the end of March administrators contacted us to say we would move to online learning. After many staff meetings and much planning, my first step was to connect with students and families. If this sounds easy, let me tell you that it wasn’t. With children at home, parents and guardians struggled with their work schedules. I also had to support families who didn’t have Internet access or computers. Then there were the students who relied on our school’s lunch program every day—how would they eat? In those early weeks, I spent most of my time scrambling to make sure students had access to technology and food.
Later I began the task of putting students into online classrooms. I worked with other teachers to coordinate class times, and I uploaded resources and scheduled live lessons (which I also recorded in case people couldn’t join us). If students didn’t show, I tried to contact them, their families or other teachers. My main concern was making sure students were safe. Many of my online lessons ended up being mental health support conversations, during which I helped children who had difficulties at home or in dealing with the pandemic in general.
My own mental health during this time was very poor. Especially as a new teacher, I was full of daily, spiralling self-doubt. Was I doing enough for students? Or was I doing too much, and would I therefore burn out? I had a hard time setting boundaries for myself inside my tiny apartment. Even when I was able to turn away from my laptop for the day, there wasn’t much reprieve from anxiety, since the pandemic overtook other areas of my life: my summer-school teaching job was cancelled (leaving me without income for two months), I wouldn’t be able to visit my dear elderly father and I lived alone (without a furry friend, I might add, due to my building’s no-pets rule).
There were some supports available for mental health, but trying to navigate them online was daunting. I briefly used a free app, but it didn’t work for me; texting with a faceless stranger only exacerbated my loneliness. I began to experience brain fog. I was exhausted and anxious at the very thought of trying to find ongoing, professional help that would be affordable—if not free.
Fast forward to December 2021. Schools had been open for months, which meant that students and I could learn in person together. It was lovely to see them socializing in hallways, to hear their laughter. I cherished the sensation of a full classroom. Sure, there were still so many stressors. For example, I didn’t know what students looked like and I couldn’t read their facial expressions due to masks. But it seemed we were reaching the end, and this lifted my spirits on hard days. I even started to plan field trips for place-based learning.
Then Omicron hit. As of the new year, everything is different.
I’ve seen more absences among students. Families are stressed. As public health rules change, parents and guardians debate when to send students back after any illness. A cloud of exhaustion has settled over school. I can feel it among students and staff alike. An end to the pandemic is no longer in sight, and this saddens me for the kids. Pleasurable school events, like assemblies and ceremonies, are shadows of what they once were, held in small groups with minimal social connection. And those day trip lessons I had planned? They’re on hold again—indefinitely.
So how do we go on? In my case, my colleagues sustain me; I don’t know what I’d do without them. This includes teachers teaching on call (TTOCs), educational assistants, Indigenous education teachers and support workers, counsellors, fellow early-career teachers, office teams, building custodians and engineers, administrators, district staff... The education community’s compassion is unparalleled and we’ve truly all been in this together. Just when I think I’ll give up, they’re here to listen without judgment and lend a helping hand.
What I’ve learned from March 2020 until now is to take my work day by day, show up for the kids and my colleagues and await change. That’s what I can do for now, and I think that’s enough.
About the author
Patricia is an early-career teacher in BC. She actively seeks ways to decolonize education and participate in and promote anti-racism and anti-oppression in schools