When a Virus Dictates Pedagogy

What’s it like teaching in a pandemic?  Frustrating and exhausting.  My best guess is that we’re running at about 60% of what we usually cover curriculum wise.  There are a number reasons for this, but the underlying one is that we’re letting a virus dictate our pedagogy.  SARS- CoV-2 is dictating a lot of things about being human at the moment, so it isn’t surprising that it’s also dictating how we educate our children, but COVID19’s ways are alien and harsh.  SARS-CoV2 might be even more mean spirited than the politicians we have running Ontario at the moment.  It’s at least as equally short sighted, self-serving and cruel.  It’s no wonder that the two get along so well together, COVID is the hammer this government has been trying to hit us with for the past two years.  They’ll still be gleefully holding our heads under water for weeks after the rest of the province has shut down.

For those of us trying to ride this out in the system, COVID19 throws everything into a permanent state of panic.  The system, which has been struggling under political attacks for over two years now, has been forced into reopening without any central plan or consistent support.  The result is a calcified, wounded thing lacking in flexibility and responsiveness.  In the rush to force school re-openings a number of strange inconsistencies have shown themselves.  If students aren’t in the building it’s perfectly OK to stuff up to forty of them on a poorly ventilated school bus for up to an hour at a time while transporting them to and from their socially distanced classrooms.  There is minimal oversight on masking policies at that time as the only adult in the vehicle is busy operating the vehicle.  Students then disburse from their crowded buses into carefully sized cohorts of under 20 so they aren’t in big groups… like the one they just sat in to get to the school.

You might think the walk-in students in the afternoon cohort are managing better, but driving home I regularly see large groups of 20+ students not wearing masks while play fighting and jumping on each other after a long afternoon of mask compliance and rigorous rules.  When COVID dictates your school’s daily activities it’s with an iron grip powered by fear and blame.  I don’t remotely blame those kids for jumping on each other after a frustrating afternoon of being kept apart and muzzled, but we’re kidding ourselves if we think all the rules are reducing transmission routes, the water’s just running around the rock that is the school.  Meanwhile, in school we’re making classroom maps of who is sitting where so we can trace contagion in the place it’s least likely to happen.  We don’t trace it anywhere else because it doesn’t affect system liability.  Compliance with liability issues appears to be what drives system decisions, not efficacy against this virus.

There is a reason we don’t didn’t do quadmesters when viruses weren’t dictating our school schedule.  Human attention is a limited resource (these days it’s being strip-mined too).  In education speak this is often referred to as engagement.  Some media has conflated this into a reduction in attention spans, but my experience in the classroom doesn’t support that.  I’ve watched CyberTitans and Skills Ontario competitors peak perform for hours at a time, so sustained attention is something today’s students are more than capable of, but it only seems to work in genuine learning opportunities.  Overly fabricated lessons with fictional connections to the real world are where engagement fails.  Students can quickly see through that kind of fabricated value.  You might get away with inauthentic learning in a 76 minute class, but in a 150 minute class you’re going to run into problems.

The quadmester fire-hose curriculum is problematic on a number of levels.  Fast moving students who are fluent in the system can adapt and even benefit from that kind of focused attention on a subject, but for the other seventy percent of the class, massive burst f2f and then remote/elearning classes are damaging their ability to learn, but we’re not dictating pedagogy any more, a virus is, and the virus actually benefits from disaffected, frustrated people.  It’s odd that we keep handing these kinds of people to the disease.  SARS-CoV2 isn’t intelligent in the traditional sense, but it is a reflexive opportunist that will and does benefit from our ham-handed responses.

In addition to student focus, quadmesters produce a number of other issues that are especially difficult to manage during a world wide medical emergency.  I’ve just spent three weeks trying to order IT parts in for my second grade 9 class.  The first one took out enough of what parts we had in the lab (many of which were in rough shape because we’d been in the middle of using them before March break) that I couldn’t do the IT unit with the second class.  In a normal year I’d have weeks to sort that out, in the drink-from-the-firehouse quadmester curriculum where we’re covering 4+ days of material each day and almost a month a week, there is no time to wait on parts.  They take longer to source and deliver anyway because there’s a pandemic happening.  I’m now trying to line up a month’s worth of coding curriculum to deliver next week instead – online and f2f at the same time all day every day.

Another one of those inconsistent system responses is the withdrawal of support services within the school.  Special education support rooms are closed, guidance is closed and  libraries are closed, presumably so students aren’t mixing in school.  When you’re facing 16 bused in students every morning who are bringing over 500 secondary connections with them into your classroom, the idea that sending students who need support to specialists who can help them, or sending one of the many students I’ve had in emotional distress over the past few weeks down to guidance seems like a reasonable expectation, but evidently it’s absurdly dangerous.

COVID19 seldom transmits through airborne droplets.  You’d have to be within two meters of someone when they sneezed or coughed while not wearing a mask while you’re also not wearing a mask (though COVID can infect through eyes too) to even have a chance of transmission that way.  Yet we fixate on masks and ignore the most common means of transmission.  The single thing that’s made SARS-CoV2 so difficult to manage is its ability to survive on surfaces.  Smaller groupings and frequent spot cleaning is what will strangle this thing, not myopic mask fixations.  Following the actual pathology of the disease, there is no reason why we can’t apply effective cleaning regimes and distancing to guidance, spec-ed support and library access, but we don’t because we’d rather panic and shut them down while giving the virus the frustrated people it needs to thrive.  Less is more when it comes to ignoring special needs in a pandemic.

While quadmesters are problematic in a lot of ways, the dual cohort is also an imperfect solution to a problem we’re only half addressing.  The initial idea was to make every classroom teacher do twice as much prep work designing both face to face and online instruction and then being both online and face to face with alternating halves of the class all day.  In practice the splits didn’t happen evenly because we’re a country school and way more students get bused in than walk, so our morning/bus cohorts are often 2-3 times bigger than our afternoon cohorts (16 vs 6 last week for me).  Our union then worked out how to provide us with prep time by having covering teachers come in for 30-45 minutes in each two and a half hour marathon face to face session, but in practice I’ve yet to have a covering teacher qualified to teach what I teach and none of them have the faintest idea what we’re doing.  From a safety perspective, if the covering teacher isn’t tech qualified I’m supposed to pull students off hands-on work (which is the main focus in technology classes) and do seat work (which isn’t)… with someone who has no background in the subject?  We were told to just work through our preps.  It’s bandaids all the way down in 2020.

Having to produce days of remote lessons for the half of the class not face to face is another place where a bandaid was thrown on.  The teachers covering the online work?  Yep, they’re not qualified to teach my subject and have no background in it either.  Furthermore they were told that they are to do no marking and make no material for the class, so they’re… what?  Taking attendance?  On any typical day I’m trying to teach a face to face class while also trying to respond to online emails from students at home at the same time.  Not only is this an incredible burden to bear for classroom teachers, but it also casts the no-contact rules with people still doing support work in a stark light.  If feels like we’re expected to go over the top every day into no-man’s land while other staff are experiencing minimal workloads.

Overflow classes for students who need special one on one support?  That would have been a good use of teachers not in the classroom.  We could have pivoted around student need instead of ignoring it.  Emotional support spaces for students struggling with the last six months?  That would have been a good use of teachers, but thanks to an arbitrary and rather inconsistent response, support is dead while people on the front lines are being snowed under.

The reflexive tightening of the system while under this extraordinary pressure while also two years into a provincial leadership vacuum has resulted in an inflexible response that is providing the appearance of safe, face to face schooling without actually delivering it.  I struggled early on with system leaders telling us to just provide day care and not worry about curriculum, but I didn’t take years of schooling to provide day care, though, of course, I’m very cognizant of my students’ mental well being.  Others have suggested that it doesn’t matter if we cover curriculum as long as we just make sure the kids are OK, but that’s very difficult to do when the very systems in schools that ensure child well-being are inaccessible.  Do you want to be having surgery done on you by COVID-grads who never actually completed a credible education system?  Do you want them fixing your brakes?  Building your bridges?  We ignore expertise at great cost to our society.  We have to get back to maximizing human potential because that’s what society needs us to do – our students need us to do that too.  Summer should have been all about planning and organization, but it is clearly evident that the government and the ministry its mismanaging didn’t plan anything.  We’re watching boards scramble with no clear funding or central planning by provincial governance to try and make this work, and it really isn’t.

Where to next?  Well, Ontario’s second wave is breaking on us quickly.  Where is it coming on strong?  In school aged kids and the people most likely to be in contact with them.  Some have suggested that younger children aren’t at risk because they’re not showing a lot of high positives, but considering COVID19’s strange habits, such as the fact that the vast majority of under twenties who get it show no symptoms at all, and considering that Ontario’s half-assed back to school plan has had parents missing work to take their kids with colds, asthma and allergies to day-long line ups to get COVID tested, I’m not surprised.  We’re good at skewing our own data.

Here’s a happy thought for you:  what if students are freely spreading COVID19 on overcrowded buses and before and after school by being non-compliant with safety protocols (young people are the most likely cynical spreaders, along with conservatives, so our area is doubly blessed).  They then take it home where older siblings and parents produce the biggest spike in cases.  Give it a bit of time and it’ll spread to older groups where it is much more likely to be fatal.  After a week in school, a weekend visit to grandparents might be about the nastiest thing you can do.  It took less than two weeks for me to personally know a teacher who was sent home to wait on a COVID19 test.  Don’t think it can’t happen to you, it’s inevitable.

How to fix it?  It’s self correcting.  Thousands of parents are starting to see the holes in this government’s lack of planning and are pulling their children back home for fully remote learning.  As in everything else in this pandemic, people are leveraging their socioeconomic advantage and privilege to look after themselves.  Rather than creating fictions around a normalized return to school (for the kids’ mental health!), we need to focus face to face schooling on the students and families that specifically need it.  Instead of using the school system as an underground transmission system for the virus, we should be using it to focus on providing equity and support for people in distress.  I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few weeks (when I’m not teaching face to face and online simultaneously in an accelerated curriculum all day every day) talking down students and their parents – both of whom I’ve seen burst into tears while venting.

We realized an important distinction early on in the emergency cancellation of classes in the spring: this isn’t elearning, it’s emergency remote learning, and expecting students to be open and able to learn while under that kind of stress isn’t reasonable.  I knew we were going to struggle to get through curriculum in the circumstances, I just didn’t expect the system to redesign itself to make it harder as well.  We’ve tried to reopen schools while our pedagogy is being driven by a virus rather than how people best learn.  The result is a problematic system of delivery that is causing more problems than the virus itself.  We’ve lurched from video communications getting you fired to video communications being essential in a matter of one weekend, and we’re still working out the social conventions around that.  But that stumbling forward into readily available technology also suggests a pathway out of this mess. I honestly believe that our reluctance to understand and explore the possibilities of digital communications has put us on our back foot over and over again in this medical emergency.  If we embraced the opportunities to be found in digital pedagogy we could not only provide a pathway around COVID limitations but also reveal enrichment opportunities that we could continue to leverage well after this pandemic has passed.

Face to face schooling has always been a series of compromises, but the pandemic has made those compromises increasingly stark while also ignoring a number of health gaps that might end up hurting people.  It’s difficult starting another day of trying to be in two places at once knowing that students in crisis have no where to go.  I’m not going to leave them dangling, but there is only so much of me to go around.  All in all we’re just another brick in the wall.  I always keep that song in the back of my mind when I teach so I see my students as people.  SARS-CoV2 doesn’t see them as people, it sees them as a resource to be used up.  I wish the people running our education system didn’t see our classrooms in the same way a virus does.  I wish we could find a way forward that leverages the technology we have so we could focus our limited face to face resources more effectively and sustainably.

For me it’s another week back in the trenches being told to drag kids in distress through a sped up schedule designed by a virus.  I’m not sure how long we can all keep this up, pandemic or no pandemic.

Does education have to be about bricks in the wall? It seems to be what we’re reduced to during this pandemic piled on top of two years of government abuse.  This has to end eventually, surely.

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