Lessons learned through COVID: ATA

Masha Scheele
Local Journalism Initiative

A recent study revealed that although the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified education challenges of inequity and poverty, it has also accelerated new opportunities with digital technologies and collaboration within the school community.

More than 8,000 Alberta teachers and school leaders were surveyed in a pandemic research study by the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA).

The study ran from April 27 to May 15, 2020, and covered well-being, equity, technology use and online instruction, pedagogical practices and the profession of teaching, and the return to public school buildings.

Jessica Smeall, local ATA president, Evergreen Local 11, said the first few weeks were tough and overwhelming as teachers, students, and parents were thrown into an emergency online teaching situation with zero notice, but that everybody has slowly learned to adjust to the changes.

The benefit of moving to online learning at the end of this school year was that teachers already got to know their students after spending six months with them prior to being physically disconnected.

“In September, I think it would be tough to start with a brand new class in this format, but knowing that we have connections with other staff members in our schools who have already made those connections, [we can] collaborate on what worked for a particular student,” Smeall said.

When the survey asked how teachers are holding up, 70 per cent of respondents said they felt exhausted and 63 per cent said they felt isolated due to working from home.

“If you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of others. So I think making sure you as a teacher or as a parent or as a student are taking care of yourself first and foremost,” said Smeall.

Smeall, who is also a teacher at Ecole Mountain View in Hinton, said she sees that teachers in her own school, across the province, and even herself are feeling exhausted.

“You have to make sure you’re taking your own mental health into your control and I am very proud to say that at least in our division I’ve seen so many feel good projects and teachers lifting each other up and connecting with parents in several different methods to make sure that everybody is ok,” she said.

She added that she’s proud of the staff and teachers in her division for making connections and collaborating with colleagues and parents.

Thirty-five per cent of teachers in the survey said they are taking on some of the trauma their students are feeling, specifically the concern of if their students are safe and fed.

Seventy-five per cent don’t feel the same emotional connection with their students as they did prior to the pandemic, and 65 per cent of teachers feel their energy level is lower than 30 days ago.

Teachers are also worried about the impact emergency remote teaching has on students who need extra attention. 

Extra help beyond classroom support is a concern for 62 per cent of teachers and 64 per cent said access to technology and digital literacy is an issue.

Teachers identified students living in poverty, living in single-parent homes, with exceptionalities, and with English as a second language at risk and struggling.

Teachers also identified male students as having more difficulty than female students.

Being in a rural division also comes with its own challenges, but everyone is working for the betterment of the students and staff, Smeall said.

While families are more spread out in a rural division, teachers and school staff have lent out technology resources, shared digital and paper copies, and tried to meet the needs of students in an effort to reach as many families as possible.

On a positive note, 57 per cent of teachers said they’re more collaborative with their colleagues and school leadership and 91 per cent have a positive working relationship with parents and guardians.

“We’ve been finding new resources that we will carry in future years for sure,” Smeall said.

Working in a french immersion school, Smeall has used google classroom as a centre for uploading recordings that could be a future resource for parents who don’t speak french.

Finding a variety of technologies, sharing them, and finding what works best for students and teachers has been a positive change.

“Unfortunately, without being face to face with the students we are losing a lot of those connections. We are doing what we can with phone calls and meets and such,” Smeall continued.

While technology has been essential in the rapid move to online instruction, some negative effects have also been noted by teachers.

Teachers are connecting with their students mostly through email, video calls or virtual meet-ups, and telephone calls and 35 per cent of students access online instruction through laptops and 32 per cent by mobile devices.

Teachers said readiness to learn, the ability to focus, and checking in online each day has declined since March.

Results showed that this could be a result of excessive screen time, technology costs for families, remote access challenges and lack of support, and a concern with growth in privatization of educational services.

One teacher in the survey noted that parent engagement has fallen off track significantly as time went on. Smeall added that as everyone has found their groove in homeschool/online teaching, there has been a decline in online engagement, which was to be expected.

“People are out more, they’re out with their families. Sometimes that connection is just as important as the online schooling,” Smeall said.

Results of the study showed that the top three concerns of Alberta teachers were school safety, student learning needs for school re-entry, and the well being for all.

Specifically, health and safety measures in regards to slowing the spread of COVID-19 were a concern for school safety, while the concern for student learning needs refers to the support for vulnerable populations, student engagement and motivation, and less high-stakes testing and more authentic assessments.