Is Our Only Choice Less?

Doesn’t matter how experienced you are
in unprecedented times…


This reflection might come out as a firehose of frustration, but this year in Ontario’s public education system has been one for the ages.  After a springtime of flat footed confusion nothing seems to have happened in the summer as the government kept moving the goalposts on what school openings would look like.  School boards have been left to scramble.  We start tomorrow and I have no idea how it’s going to go.  Some people are hanging on so tight their fingers are going to break while others have already taken a big step back.  My magic powers are bloody-mindedness and empathy.  I’m not particularly brilliant or erudite, but I can take a hit and always get back up again, and I care, which is good because we’ve been pummelled senseless in the past few weeks by chaos and the attendant system think that has arisen to try and control it.



*****


The metaphors are flying thick and fast this year as we struggle to launch Ontario’s public school system.  Tens of thousands of adults are trying to put new processes in place to protect millions of children after the provincial government offered little in the way of central organization and then played shell games with funding all summer.  Most recently they’ve paused everything else while half finished plans to open public schools continue to roll out.

While the premier mocked our union president for having an English degree the rest of us were doing his job for him: creating a plan that will (hopefully) protect staff and students from an ongoing pandemic we still don’t really understand.  Will it work?  Worldwide school reopenings, especially if they aren’t centrally organized and properly funded, cause large spikes in this easily spreadable contagion.  Some countries have managed it by pooling resources and working with all their partners closely to leverage everything at their disposal.  Partnership and teamwork aren’t something Doug Ford’s government comprehends so we’re attempting to open schools in Ontario in the least successful manner possible.

With the meta-framework of Ontario’s public education system being held hostage by a government intent on privatizing it, it’s a wonder the system works locally it all.  It has certainly struggled.  With the COVID19 pandemic piled on top I can say, hand on heart, that this has been one of the worst years to teach in Ontario in its history, but we persevere because education matters.  The only people telling you otherwise want to use and abuse you.



At the local level setting up for this school year has been like running a marathon where they keep changing the course and making it longer, while handing you bricks to carry; it feels like running a marathon no one wants to see you finish.  I know what I’m being asked to do is for the common good, but at some point (which we may have already passed), so much will be piled on that the basic functionality of the classroom (teaching, remember?) won’t be any better than in remote/elearning.

After six months of lockdown everyone is longing for face to face interaction.  I’m feeling it too, but in the drive to do that we’ve lost the plot.  When we started back we were told not to worry about curriculum and just make sure the kids are OK.  I understand the sentiment but the places that do that are called daycares and I didn’t spend tens of thousands of dollars and years of my life to become qualified to work in day care.  Public education is one of the most powerful human being enhancers we’ve created.  Along with publicly funded healthcare it’s the beacon a society sends out to show that it is enlightened.  When our citizens are healthy and educated our country benefits in every way.  This isn’t anything as shady as economics which thrives on disempowerment and privilege, though health and education powers our economy too.  Strong public services that maximize our citizens’ potential is what civilization means.  All the other things (art, technology, medicine, economics) grow in this fertile soil.  We so often get this backwards.

The pandemic has cast a harsh light on the many social mechanisms that cause inequity and in the past decade Ontario has constantly chased economic gain while cutting the public systems that enable it.  Since 2010 Ontario police have experienced double digit pay raises, they are the only public service to see this kind of funding.  Meanwhile defund the police has become a cry to action during the pandemic because police are the hand of systemic racism and inequality in Canada.

Our board has since relaxed the hangout and chill stance and is encouraging curriculum and skills development but any teacher worth their salt knows how Maslow would feel about this.

Knowing that basic needs have to be met before we go after the higher cognitive functioning needed to learn effectively is probably why people at the board office were pushing for a relationship focused quadmester.  Schools have always tried to fill that gap between how poorly a society treats its disenfranchised citizens and the privilege others benefit from, but COVID19 has widened that breach to such a point that it’s impossible for a headless, underfunded public education system to come close to crossing that bridge in this crisis.  I’m starting to feel that the people in charge want to fill that gap with our bodies.

We’ve been buried in wordy presentations and piles of emails dictating our new normal which isn’t normal at all.  Just when you think you’ve got a handle on it you can expect it to change.  Admin are as exhausted as everyone else as we all madly dance to this insane tune.  While the onslaught of instructions, signs and rules continues from on high I’m actually expected to be face to face with students (but not really, we’re all socially distanced and behind masks) all day every day.  While that’s going on I’m also supposed to be monitoring and running elearning for the other cohort because our board’s solution to massive class sizes was to have every teacher being in two places at once.

There are stories of classrooms stuffed full of students in Ontario this fall during a pandemic.  Since the Ministry left it to each board to decide how they would proceed, each has gone in a different direction.  Each plan has its own benefits and disadvantages based on no central planning and inconsistent funding support.  In our board they’ve cut any class over twenty students into two cohorts.  The students who are bussed come in in the morning and the walking students come in in the afternoon, but while I’m face to face with my half classes I’m also supposed to be providing material and managing elearning for the other half.

This approach has the benefit of not overloading classrooms with bodies and so takes steps to mitigate the health risks we’re all facing, but it has its own problems.  I’m now trying to be in two places at once.  They given me a teacher who was on prep to oversee the online work, but this teacher is unqualified to teach my subject, knows little about it and isn’t expected to do anything tangible.  What it comes down to is make-work because we’re not trusted to help the school function without being over scheduled and micromanaged into the ground.  I understand the impulse as a few people will use not being in class as an excuse to do as little as possible, but the vast majority would be able to fill these gaps much more effectively using their own initiative, as I’ve already seen many teachers do.  But initiative, like differentiation, is dead in our micro-managed pandemic classrooms.

Our prep time was also cut in this format where we’re teaching face to face (kinda) all day, so now another teacher is coming in to cover us while we take our prep, except that teacher isn’t qualified to teach my subject either.  They aren’t even tech qualified so students can’t keep doing hands on work when face to face (which is the whole point of being face to face) unless I let my prep go and just stay in the room, which was what admin suggested our entire tech department do.  So, downloading work onto classroom teachers with no prep time and twice the planning is the solution – it’s actually the answer to every question:  download anything that comes up onto the already crushed classroom teacher.  One of my grade 9 parents won’t provide internet when she isn’t home so her son can’t do elearning even though they have all the tools.  The solution was for me to print out a special course of study for this one student on paper to study computer technology on paper, which he then takes home… during a contact tracing pandemic.  Don’t expect flexibility this semester, but do expect absurdity.  They’ll tell you all decisions are based on reducing the risk of transmission, but that one wasn’t.

This situation raised another point:  because students are only in half days, parents working in essential jobs all day are stuck trying to decide how to make that work.  We’re a high school and we’re all having to grow up quickly in this ongoing crisis, so I’d hope that a high school age student could provide some self direction and work from home, but not in every case.  A system response that honours equity and tries to help those families that need the extra support would be to direct those students in need to a socially distanced resource for the afternoon when they can’t elearn at home, but our spec-ed resource room has been cut and the experts in there are all teaching instead.  It’s important to treat everyone the same in an emergency.  Our split day schedule assumes that all students have connectivity and technology at home – it’s a system predicated on privilege that ignores home circumstances.  While all this is going on we’ve been getting PD about how unfair systemic privilege is.

I had a plan in May, Ontario still doesn’t
really have one in September.

Looking at how messy some of the other reopenings are in the province I think our board has done an exceptional job with no direction and inconsistent funding, but the two hidden mechanisms that make it work are downloading extra work on classroom teachers and assuming privilege in terms of the digital divide.  We took drastic steps to get  technology and connectivity out to students in the spring but that has since been returned (kinda) and that capacity has dried up.  I dreamt that we’d be building capacity and reducing the digital divide over the summer because you would have to be oblivious to this situation to think we won’t be fully remote learning again at some point, but none of that has happened in the chaos of a mismanaged face to face reopening.

We’re unable to climb Maslow’s hierarchy and do our jobs (developing students’ cognitive skills at the top of the pyramid, remember?).  In the case of such a catastrophic failure of Ontario’s political responsibility to its citizens perhaps all that is left to us is to make sure the kids are ok, as long as we’re all happy living in a less literate and numerate future.  Part of this new < normal is ensuring that you as an educator are still functional physically and mentally.  The ECOO Virtual Conference a few weeks ago kept emphasizing this advice which is inline with what you get from an airline when you get on a plane (remember when we used to do that?).


This past week I’ve been putting my lab together solo because students can’t come in to help me as they usually do.  Even my own son, who is well within my bubble, isn’t allowed to come in and help.  The thick blanket of rules we’re buried under are as much about managing liability as they are about medical safety.  I’ve also been running all over the building helping dozens of teachers, including the many new ones, get their rooms sorted and operational from a digital perspective, all with the usual lack of acknowledgement from administration, though they’re sure to thank everyone at the board office who have been busy making two hour powerpoint presentations that are contrary to our inequitable school opening plan.  A lot of that technical support has also included emotional support because my reflex when I see someone drowning in panic is try and help.

A fine example of this over management was to order all teacher desks to the front of the classrooms.  This was done (presumably) to facilitate better management of people coming and going from the room, but since that isn’t happening much and our face to face class sizes are smaller anyway, I have to wonder which curriculum expert who hasn’t been in teaching in a decade made that decision.  The digital projectors in most rooms are plumbed in to where the teacher desk is so this dictate meant that dozens of rooms were suddenly disconnected from a vital teaching resource.

Another baffling choice in the chaos has been to cancel student safety agreements for science and technology classes.  The board has always vigorously demanded absolute compliance with these documents.  When you’re working on dangerous equipment with legally not responsible teenagers with undeveloped frontal lobes that prevent them from forecasting the results of their poor choices, a signed legal agreement with their legally responsible adult parents or guardians puts everyone on the same page in terms of safety expectations.  These are common sense safety expectations, but common sense and teenagers don’t often occupy the same room, so it’s important to have their parents aware of the weight of this responsibility.  It’s also vital for liability.  When a student ignores the agreement they and their parents have signed and an accident results, it produces a better outcome for everyone, except it’s been cancelled during the pandemic because they don’t want us using paper.  Then in our last staff meeting (which is really a litany of what to do with little collegiality or interactivity) we were told that using paper is fine.  Do try to keep up.

I’m usually able to reflect my way out of a negative place with these blog posts, but I’m still in darkness here.  I’m terrified of bringing home a virus that could be fatal to my partner.  I’m worried about my students’ well being and frustrated that climbing Maslow’s hierarchy is simply a bridge too far this year.  I’m also frustrated by the provincial system’s inability to show any vision or organization in helping us succeed in this crisis.  Finally, my own board’s efforts, while exceptional in terms of what else I’ve seen in the province, are inconsistent, undifferentiated and predicated on assumptions about the digital divide that we’ve already shown to be untrue. 

There are glimmers of hope in the chaos.  I’ve seen cunning and cheap solutions to common technology problems that could expand the functionality of our laptops by turning them into document cameras, and I’ve seen local teachers jump on it and make it happen  (I hope to have these churning out next week).

I also keep finding myself in other people’s ewaste that could be turned into remote learning tools, but being buried under two simultaneous classes a day all day, and having one of my senior sections cancelled by our previous principal, I don’t have the time or the senior student expertise to make this happen.  So much could happen if we depended on teacher initiative and expertise instead of spoon feeding them hours of powerpoint and pages of step by step instructions.  I fully expect to be told to sit in a French class next semester to cover someone else’s prep (I don’t parlez the francais).  Such is the resolution everyone is running at, when it runs at all.

Give me a little latitude and I could perform (bigger) miracles, even in this monstrous circus, but latitude and professional trust was the first victim of this pandemic.  Given a minimal budget and some space I could all but resolve the digital divide in our board and prepare us for fully remote learning that seems inevitable, but they’d rather me just follow the plethora of signs.  Whoever is making those signs seems to have infinite resources.

I just got handed this cart of old netbooks that were headed for ewaste.  With a Linux install they would provide dozens of students with remote learning devices they could keep in a pandemic.  With more latitude I’d be picking up #edtech from RCTO’s Computers For Schools and providing desktops and portable devices for staff and students (as I did in the spring and all summer) across the board.  Give me even more latitude and I’d be in touch with Google’s Loon to see if we couldn’t provide local free school internet to all students who attend a school regardless of the urban/rural digital divide.  But initiative and individual responsibility and expertise are atrophied by a panicked system operating in a pandemic.

Alanna’s been channelling Simon Sinek.  Perspective helps:

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