Column: Back To School, Covid, Teaching & More

May 10, 2021

[Written by Vejay Steede]

Schools across the island will open their doors to students today after an extended period of remote learning. As the narrative goes, schools were closed in March to exercise an abundance of caution due to rising Covid-19 cases and several exposures in schools, which led to quarantines.

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Now we’re returning to school with very little to suggest that we’ve come through the worst of this public health crisis. In fact, last school year was effectively rendered remote from a similar point through to June 30 [the traditional end of the regular school year] with decidedly less community transmission, incidence, active cases and related deaths than this year. The only real difference between this year and last is that a large portion of the local population has been vaccinated.

Right now we want to look at how teachers are feeling about returning to school buildings with all the anxiety inducing risks, strict safety protocols, and restrictive measures that will be involved. We spoke to a random group of teachers and school support staff to get a feel for what returning to school at this time means for them; many indicated that they felt this is a premature move, and that the restrictive measures may do significant social and emotional damage to students and staff.

Indeed, the mere requirement for all staff [and students at middle and senior schools] to wear a mask at all times seems oppressive and arduous, and keeping primary aged students six feet apart from each other at all times seems both virtually impossible and some may say borderline cruel.

We asked educators for their thoughts on returning to school under all these strict restrictions with the caveat that their responses would be used anonymously. Here’s what they said:

Starting with preschool, one support staff member offered this: “I’m happy that the little ones and the teachers of little ones will be off Zoom; it was not great. However, if focus is on protocols and curriculum it’s going to continue to create social-emotional struggles, which are already huge, and are being ignored by leaders as they create more pain.”

A primary school Physical Education teacher said “I think it will be detrimental to the mental health of both teachers and students. I wonder how much real teaching is even going to happen. I wonder how we are supposed to teach using best practice when we can’t even breathe because we’ve been stuck under a mask all day. I wonder why we are being asked if we are vaccinated or not when it’s supposed to be illegal for employers to ask that. I wonder how I’m supposed to teach my upper school curriculum when students can’t even share equipment. Yet they’ve been in the same classroom together for most of the day.”

These are all very real, very relevant, and very difficult concerns to address. There’s no secret that remote teaching and learning is not ideal; no one enjoys the impersonal and perfunctory feel of Zoom classes, but returning to classrooms when the Covid-19 virus is showing no signs of packing up and going away from Bermuda is risky at best, and downright dangerous at worst.

Expecting primary aged students to observe social distancing protocols at all times can, and probably will, cause trauma and certainly won’t help them to learn essential social skills in a healthy way; neither will locking them away in their homes, but at least there’s guaranteed safety in that.

One middle school teacher expressed her concerns by echoing her students: “I polled my students. They feel that as we only have a few more weeks left, we might as well stay remote. They, like me, are afraid of another quarantine announcement and having to put our lives on pause for 14 days [again]. I don’t see much difference in what will change going back. I just know that it is hard to practice all that is required when you add live students to the mix; students who greet, share, play together and all those types of social things.”

Another middle school staff member saw the situation from two sides: “Couple thoughts. I think it’s silly. Putting us at risk again and no increased safety measures… just this saliva testing that tests a portion of the school every week, if parents allow. Same time, schools need to open… remote learning is not done correctly. Nobody should be on Zoom all day.”

Indeed, the risks are not insignificant, and being put at risk in this way can make people feel expendable, which can lead to low morale and emotional strain. Furthermore, adding this kind of pressure to a profession that is already exhausting at the best of times can be overwhelming. Our teachers are strong though, so they will show up, and they will deliver as best they can, that much is certain.

It should also be noted that many local educators are parents as well, so remote teaching while parenting at home is not a dream situation for them either. Also, it’s been suggested elsewhere that remote teaching actually increases a teacher’s workload. The only real advantage to remote teaching is the concomitant low risk of exposure.

One primary school teacher was optimistic, but measured in her response: “On the one hand, I am so excited to get back to the classroom; to see all my students in real life and feel more assured that I am properly teaching them and be able to see them learning in front of my eyes. On the other hand, I know it’s not going back to group work, sharing, mixing and showing off our work with other groups so I know it’s still going to be hard. It’s hard to make sure all the protocols actually get followed and there’s no teacher that can do it perfect.”

No one is perfect, which is why education is going back in at 100% while other professions will be returning at various reduced capacities on Monday, May 10; the data, the doctors, the politicians, the government ministers, and even the Centers for Disease Control [CDC] and the World Health Organization [WHO] are imperfect when dealing with the unknown. Covid-19 is still a relatively mysterious affliction, so navigating the ongoing pandemic will inevitably involve some guess work.

Education needs to get back running if society is to ever return to normal functioning; so the risks must be taken. The best we can do is support our teachers and our schools, continue to follow all safety and health protocols, and pray that this plague starts to turn soon.

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You can find more information on the links below and also on our dedicated website, which is the most comprehensive resource and historic record available of Bermuda’s handling of the pandemic.

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