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Facing burnout, B.C. teachers reflect on difficult first quarter, call for mask policies

Last Updated Nov 17, 2020 at 6:45 pm PDT

FILE - (Lasia Kretzel, NEWS1130 photo)

Many teachers say they're stressed and facing burnout as the first quarter amid the COVID-19 pandemic comes to an end

Teachers' associations are reflecting on the first quarter, what works, and what concerns educators continue to have

B.C. teachers continue to call for stricter mask policies in schools amid a rising number of cases

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Many high schools in B.C. are shuffling cohorts this week as part of the switch to the next quarter, affecting both middle and secondary students amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Teachers say they’re already overwhelmed by the pressure this new school year, which has also been difficult on kids and parents alike.

The quarter system limits the mixing of students by keeping them in two classes for a couple of months.

However, some have worries.

“There have been questions and some concerns raised about really how the cohorts work, and then how does a change in cohorts impact the teachers and the students,” Carolyn Pena, president of the North Vancouver Teachers’ Association, says. “Because on Monday, there was one group of students, and then on Wednesday they (teachers) have a whole new group of students in front of them. So there’s a lot of questions about what does that really mean from a cohort-point of view.”

‘Most stressed’

The beginning of the school year has been marked by uncertainty. The province didn’t release its return to school plan until August, with some teachers saying the timing didn’t give them enough time to prepare. While the province delayed the start of classes by two days, that didn’t give many parents and teachers enough time to have their concerns addressed.

“I’ve been at the North Vancouver Teachers’ Association office for almost a decade and this is the most stressed and most close to not being able to function that I’ve seen teachers in my entire career here,” Pena tells NEWS 1130 of the first stretch of the school year.

When it comes to the quarter system, Pena says there have been some benefits associated with it.

“It has to be balanced, of course. It does have challenges as well,” she explains, adding the most challenging part was the short notice to switch to it. “To switch to the quarter system, essentially, on a couple of weeks’ notice was the most challenging part, with no additional time for teachers to prepare.”

The first two days of the school year were dedicated to health and safety training for teachers and staff, followed by a sort of orientation for students.

Ken Christensen, president of the Coquitlam Teachers’ Association, agrees the quarter system has been fast moving, bringing with it a number of pressures.

“Because there’s only eight or nine weeks in quarters, and it’s just a frantic rush to try and accomplish the work, develop meaningful connections with kids, and evaluate the work that is provided,” he tells NEWS 1130. “So that’s certainly a very big stressor for teachers in high school right now.”

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In Burnaby, the situation is no different. While the quarter system isn’t the biggest concern for teachers in that district, the head of the Burnaby Teachers’ Association tells NEWS 1130 there is a lot of concern among teachers.

“Teachers are overwhelmed and there is a fear of burnout,” association president Daniel Tetrault says. “We’re already hearing from teachers that they don’t know if they’re going to make it through the whole year.”

Tetrault says teaching a year-long course over the span of 10 weeks already isn’t an easy task. Throw the pandemic into the mix, and the workload increases.

“We’re worried about how the rest of the year will go,” he adds.

Many teachers acknowledge how things were done before can’t necessarily be done now. But that’s why Tetrault says they’re looking for alternate ways of teaching.

‘The rules in schools are different’

While teachers have been working to adapt to the new normal, on top of their other teaching duties, Pena says the rules that cover schools vary widely from any other sector.

“The rules in schools are different than the rules in the rest of society,” she explains, adding many businesses have mask mandates, while a teacher can be in a classroom with dozens of students with no face coverings required.

Pena, like many other teachers and parents, have been calling for a stronger masking policy for schools across the province. In her view, everyone in school should be required to mask up for two weeks after the quarterly switch, arguing it will reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19.

“Essentially it provides a new cohort time to break from the old cohort they were in just a day or two earlier,” Pena says.

Read more: Op-Ed: B.C.’s Dr. Bonnie Henry on why masks aren’t being mandated

Christensen goes even further.

“I’d like to see a universal mask mandate across the board for both students and staff,” he says, noting that while his employer doesn’t prevent anyone from wearing a mask if they so wish.

“But without Dr. Henry’s direction to have a full mask mandate, they can’t enforce that. So that’s a big concern.”

What’s happening in other school districts is also a concern for teachers in Coquitlam, Christensen says, pointing to rising numbers of COVID-19 cases in some cities and their schools.

“I’m worried about school closures, worried about people getting sick, worried about all the things associated with the pandemic that we’re all feeling right now,” he adds.

He says class size is also a concern, as is the quick turnaround associated with the quarter system.

Different learning options

Meanwhile, the switch to the next quarter isn’t the main concern the head of the Burnaby Teachers’ Association says he’s hearing from educators.

“First off, teachers are so busy thinking about report cards right now on a tight time frame,” Tetrault says. “And the biggest thing, I would say, is teachers are wondering and looking at their next cohort and their next class, specifically, and asking, ‘Why do I have 30 kids in my class when we’re seeing an increase in exposures at schools and just an increase in cases in general in the community?'”

He notes many educators are wondering why stricter measures aren’t being put in place with the rising number of cases.

Tetrault also believes a mask policy would add a layer of protection. Additionally, he believes moving to a hybrid or “Stage 3” model until the COVID-19 situation, particularly in the Fraser Health region, is brought under control.

-With files from Mike Hall and Lasia Kretzel