“Students are behind—no ifs, ands or buts about it”: Toronto teachers on what it’s been like to return to the classroom
In September, Ontario teachers and students returned to in-person school, after a year and a half of intermittent closures and virtual learning. The return was a relief for everyone, but educators are still adjusting to the challenges of post-lockdown teaching. We spoke with four Toronto teachers about the challenges of virtual learning, the joys of returning to the classroom, and how students have changed since school lockdowns began in March 2020.
Grade 2 and 3 French immersion teacher with the TDSB
“Since last March, it has been so hard to plan, because we never knew what the future held. A lot of us had to come up with new ways to teach when we transitioned to online learning. I went to YouTube, creating my channel, Monsieur Steve, to connect with parents and kids. I made videos covering grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation, which is difficult to teach during the pandemic—so much of learning another language involves understanding how to move your mouth, and you can’t teach that from behind a mask. I spent about 15 additional work hours a week on these videos.
“I’ve been amazed to see how my colleagues have come together during the pandemic. There are Facebook groups where teachers are sharing ideas for how to teach under new circumstances, which is especially helpful because there are many different generations with varying levels of tech ability. Google Slides became everyone’s best friend, and a lot of teachers were sharing their slides and showing others how they were putting together lesson plans under these unusual circumstances. Some teachers were even doing tech support for colleagues.
“Teaching just isn’t the same through a screen. At school, you have some control over your environment. But when you’re teaching kids at home, you can’t keep them from becoming distracted. They might have other people in the same room commanding their attention. With French immersion, a family member might be speaking English during the day, forcing my students to switch back and forth between two languages, which makes it harder for them to focus on learning French.
“Even back in the classroom, it’s still challenging, because we’re enforcing safety protocols on top of the regular workload. It was a stressful September. Many of us didn’t know how many kids we were teaching until the last minute, because we didn’t know how many students were actually going to show up to school. We have to be flexible. I’m teaching 20 kids, which is normal for me.
“The safety considerations are strict—as they should be. Kids must wear a mask at all times, except for when they’re outside and are able to maintain some physical distance. Teachers wear masks for the entire school day, inside and outside. We’ve done the best we can to keep the kids distanced within the classroom, but it’s tough, especially when you don’t have that much space to begin with. I’m able to space out my desks, and we also have arrows and markers on the floor for kids to follow.
“Parents are all really happy to have their kids back in school, and the students show me every day how thrilled they are to be back. They’re desperate for group work. They love working in pairs. They’re constantly asking each other if they need help with anything. I’ve never seen levels of excitement this high—to be honest, sometimes I have to rein it in. There’s a social piece to school that is separate from learning: it’s developing relationships and learning how to navigate nuances in a way that you can’t pick up from behind a screen. I was anxious about whether my students were going to be comfortable interacting in person again after so long. But it was like riding a bike for them.
“For my Grade 2s, the pandemic is pretty much all they know in terms of their education. They haven’t been in a fully immersive environment for the last year and a half, so there are some learning gaps. And not every kid has access to equal resources at home. Some kids are working beside their siblings, or are in a small space at home where there’s a parent or caregiver nearby, which can be distracting. But the classroom is a level playing field. Yes, there’s stress, yes there’s anxiety, but for me, it’s all worth it knowing I can provide a safe and comforting learning environment for these kids.”
Grade 8 teacher at Gordon A. Brown Middle School
“As a Grade 8 teacher, I get kids at the last stop before high school. When we first transitioned to online learning, my students were engaged, but I slowly started to lose them. Kids would keep their cameras off and not participate in class discussions even through the Zoom chat. Attendance dropped. Then the realization hit us that we wouldn’t be returning to in-person learning. They didn’t get to say goodbye to me, but more importantly, they didn’t get to say goodbye to a lot of their friends.
“I’ll say this: selfishly, being at home, and teaching from home, was amazing. I’d shower, wash my face, brush my teeth, and then five minutes later, I was on the computer. That part was great. However, I know my students suffered. School isn’t just a place for academic engagement—the social and community elements are important. Kids were struggling to connect to the lessons, and to me, from behind a screen. Face-to-face interaction is how most of my students learn best, and it’s how I teach best. When kids turn off their camera, they can see me, but I can’t see them. I’m talking to a black screen for six, seven hours a day. It got to a point when they weren’t even turning on their microphones—I would be talking, and the discussion would be happening in the chat, because they’re the type-and-text generation.
“The biggest difference this year, compared to last year, is that, as bad as this might sound, we’re all kind of used to living with Covid. And we’re all trying to return to some sense of routine and normalcy. The teachers aren’t as strict as we were last fall. We’re still telling students to sanitize things, to avoid sharing markers, things like that, but the paranoia has gone down. I don’t know if this is because of vaccinations or because of Covid fatigue. Probably some combination of the two.
“Students are behind. There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it. Academically, they might forget the basics of mental math, but in my class, they’re also forgetting how to use their agendas for planning and time-management. There’s a social element to it, too: even when they’re in the same room, a lot of students are interacting with each other with their phones. I can’t take for granted that they have the academic foundations that they should have at this age, because realistically, they don’t. So I’m doing much more general lesson plans and connecting to student interests, to ensure that I bring everyone along. It’s difficult for those who are behind, because they’re comparing themselves to their peers who are ahead, but it’s also difficult for those who are ahead, because they’re getting bored.
“I think a lack of socialization over the last year and a half has changed some of my students completely. They default to interacting on their phones now. I recently had a student FaceTime her friend who was sitting in the same classroom to ask him a question—partly because they weren’t allowed to leave their desks to socialize, but also because digital communication has become the norm. I build in at least one or two mask breaks in the morning and afternoon, where we go outside for 10 to 15 minutes and can safely remove our masks. The other day, 22 of my 23 students spent that mask break on their phones. They’re no longer running around or playing basketball. At first, I was pretty gentle about this, because I get that it’s difficult for these kids to reintegrate after a very strange year and a half. But now I’m really encouraging them to put down their phones and talk to each other.
“I have a boys club with 15 of my students called Where There’s A Will There’s A Way, where we talk about the things young men need to talk about: relationships, feelings, emotional well-being. I started the club before the pandemic, and I kept it going virtually during lockdown. It’s the one extracurricular I’m allowed to do right now. With Covid, there’s definitely a greater need in this age cohort to talk about the challenges of the last two years and to share the emotional impact of the pandemic.”
Principal at Apollo High School
“Our transition to online was not as bad as it could have been. We’re a small private high school, and a lot of our students are international students, so they’re already accustomed to online learning. But by April of this year, the novelty of staying home was wearing off. Most of our students were longing for that human interaction. Because our student body is primarily made up of international students, they’re usually living with host families, so they depend on the school to make friends. That opportunity wasn’t there. I was teaching a communication technology course last year, and during a lesson about photography, many of the students were saying, ‘Oh, it would be a lot easier for me to understand this in person.’ Much of our curriculum was simply harder to teach online.
“We’re a private high school, which means we’re inspected by the Ministry of Education, but we aren’t part of a school board. We had a lot more freedom to decide what we were and were not comfortable with. For instance, when some school boards announced the return to in-person learning in February of 2021, we decided that we weren’t comfortable doing so.
“We also decided that the transition back to the classroom this September was only going to work if all of our students and teachers were double-vaccinated. There was no push-back on this decision from any teachers or from any of our students’ parents—the only hurdle we had to jump over was helping the students secure their vaccinations. In addition, masks are mandatory indoors. For our international students who were recently entering Canada and hadn’t received their second shot, I was able to source Covid testing kits, which were administered twice a week to those students within the first two weeks of them getting their second shot.
“The students are happy to be back in class. I don’t know if I’m looking at this through rose-coloured glasses, but I think that after a year or so of isolation, they’ve started the school year as a much tighter-knit, closer community. They get together and organize events and excursions on weekends, independently of anything we provide through the school—a large group recently organized a trip to Wonderland, for example, and a dinner afterwards. Tomorrow, we’re running an apple-picking field trip, and about 15 students signed up. We’re not 100 per cent back to normal—and I don’t think we’ll ever be—but we’re getting there.”
Grade 4 teacher with the TDSB
“I’ve never met a group of kids so happy to be in the building. They’re smiling when they arrive, they love chatting with each other. I’m having a fantastic attendance year so far, and it’s only gotten better as the school year has progressed. That’s usually the opposite. And they’re walking in with a lot more wisdom than I would normally expect from kids in this age cohort. Covid has been a painful time because of death and instability. Some kids have experienced a loss of financial and food security. They’ve had to deal with trauma and grief. They’re scared of being sent back to virtual school. They’ve had to be more resilient and surmount a lot of challenges that you normally wouldn’t expect a nine-year-old to have to deal with. And I can’t always tell if something is wrong when I’m teaching through a screen. I can’t offer kids a bit of additional food from our snack program if I know that there’s food insecurity at home. For these reasons, the return to school is so necessary. It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes a village to notice if there’s something wrong.
“I spend a lot of the day trying to keep attuned to their mental state and their emotional energy. Right now, I’m teaching 24 students. The kids are so eager to connect back with the physicality of things—to turn around and chat with a classmate, to sit on the floor while listening to a lesson. That need for physical expression is at a much higher level, so a lot of my lessons are a lot more free-flowing: we dance, play games, and take any opportunity we have to go outside, even if it’s just for five minutes. Not every student has a home with a backyard, so it makes a difference for them to have a huge field to run around in.
“I’m also talking to them about their emotional awareness. Just today, we talked about the brain, about what it means when we feel a fight-or-flight response. I would normally not have that conversation with a group of fourth graders, but they can now make some very useful lived-experience connections because of what they experienced with their families during the pandemic. It helped some of them understand why certain parts of the pandemic made them feel scared, or bored or upset.
“This year, if someone doesn’t come to school, everyone is immediately concerned that they have Covid. It’s like, ‘Oh no, my friend is never going to come back.’ So then my job is putting them at ease. But they’re still restless and agitated, whether or not they’re aware of it. These kids are still experiencing active trauma. As adults, we’re trying to make things as normal as we can, part of which involves acknowledging all the ways in which things are absolutely not normal.
“After two years of pandemic teaching, a lot of my colleagues are putting up boundaries, like refusing to do extracurriculars—not because they don’t want to, but because they’re so burned out. And there are still safety concerns. I spend much of my day reminding fourth graders that their masks need to cover their nose, mouth and chin. As much as we’re there for the kids, we have to take care of ourselves first. Teachers are retiring early. I’ve transitioned to half-time. It’s a resourcing problem.”