A Q&A with ATA president Jason Schilling
What questions and concerns are you hearing most from teachers during this time of closures etc. due to the COVID-19 pandemic?
Teachers have had many concerns since the pandemic reached Alberta. Their first concern was the safety of their students, their families and themselves and just how they were to implement the safety protocols in their schools and classrooms. After classes were cancelled, many were concerned about what education would look like for their students along with whether they would be able to work from home or from school. Many were also concerned about how they were going to reach all their students, especially the ones with special needs and those lacking access to technology.
One thing I am also hearing that is not necessarily a concern is how teachers are rising to the challenge. I have received many messages from teachers that this challenge has been almost exciting in terms of their own teaching. Those messages are really great. Finally, teachers have told me that they miss their students, classrooms and the interactions they have with their colleagues. Many teachers are really rediscovering the reason why they love teaching.
What is your message to members regarding these concerns?
First and foremost is to be safe, patient and easy on yourself. This is tough for everyone, and teachers were extremely anxious about going back to school during a pandemic. Then, suddenly, classes were cancelled and they had to learn to deliver education remotely.
We need to recognize that we are not recreating our in-class atmosphere at home — it’s not viable. We just need to do what we can, deliver the best lessons we can under the circumstances and be easy on ourselves if the day doesn’t go as planned.
I would also say that teachers need to know that the ATA staff and members of Provincial Executive Council are working hard to address the many concerns teachers have. As we solve one issue, new ones come up, such as what will assessment look like and how will we meet the needs of our students with special needs. Decisions by the government to lay off substitute teachers and support staff have compounded the anxiety of how to deliver a continued learning program to our students. We need to address those concerns.
To what extent has the ATA been involved in helping shape Alberta Education’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic?
Often our advocacy on behalf of students, teachers and principals happens behind the scenes and that was the case in much of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. ATA staff worked closely with senior government officials and the College of School Superintendents on issues we saw facing teachers and schools.
I recall the teleconference we had with the chief medical officer of health about the rationale to keep schools open and have students continue to attend class. We asked several questions, one being specifically about whether the government would increase funding to school boards for supplies and extra staff to clean schools, as teachers are busy teaching and could not be expected to also sanitize their classrooms. The next day, when classes were cancelled, the chief medical officer mentioned our concern. I cannot say that our question was specifically part of the equation in the decision making, but it was a good example of where our voices were heard. I am grateful for that.
Unfortunately, in our advocacy work, we are not always heard, such as the inconsistency of letting teachers work from home versus working from school – and obviously the decision to cut funding that supported substitute teachers, EAs, bus drivers and other support staff was very disappointing and a complete shock.
What outstanding issues related to the pandemic is the ATA pursuing answers for?
After the release of the operations decisions on Saturday, March 28, the issues around how teachers will support their students have been magnified. It was hard enough already with a remote delivery of education, but that difficulty is now compounded without the supports that exist within a school environment.
We also need to recognize that, before the pandemic, some schools were experiencing large class sizes and complexity issues. It is not easy to see your colleagues and friends get laid off, especially after being told by the ministry that funding would not change.
Substitute teachers have concerns about income security and the process to apply for assistance is complicated and confusing. The ATA has assembled some information to help them navigate those waters. Also, we are still seeking clarity around the question of what happens if a teacher gets sick now.
We also need to focus on the continuation of learning for students. We are still very early in the process. There are many questions about the appropriate amount of work, assessment, access to materials and workload for teachers. We will also have to be mindful and strategic around what it will look like when schools reopen. This experience and the anxiety it has created in our profession and on young people will be profound, and mental wellness will be an issue we will have to face as well.
What is happening with the various issues that the ATA was focused on before the pandemic, such as class size, school choice, funding and curriculum?
The ATA is still working on the issues that were affecting education prior to classes being cancelled due to COVID-19. Recently, we submitted our representation on the recommendations for the new Ministerial Order on Student Learning and the draft K–4 curriculum. We will continue to engage the government on this issue to make sure teachers’ voices are heard about matters around curriculum, especially if there is a plan to implement a new curriculum in the fall. The ATA is mindful as well that the advent of remote learning could lead to more privatization in our system, something we would adamantly oppose.
The government passed the budget, which had a shortfall of funding to school boards that could result in larger class sizes and amplify the problems in our already diverse classrooms. The budget also changed the makeup of TEBA in relation to bargaining, which will also begin in the fall, though the process has been delayed due to the COVID-19 crisis.
Finally, the Choice in Education Act was announced in the throne speech prior to the pandemic, so we will need to watch for what this legislation will say. It’s hard to say what the future will hold. One thing I know for certain is that teachers are professionals who will face any challenge given to them. We will do this united together because we believe that public education matters. ❚