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Teachers everywhere feeling the strain from COVID-19

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Manitoba’s elementary and secondary school eductors are among those front-line workers who have had to deal with the most challenges and uncertainty in the last year. One year ago, teachers across the province were scrambling to figure out how they were supposed to continue educating their students over a virtual connection, in a way that’s never been done on such a universal scale. While most students and teachers are back in the classroom, the year was capped with the announcement of the most significant education reform in a half-century.
“It’s probably easier to make up a list of what they haven’t had to deal with this year,” said Manitoba Teachers’ Society President James Bedford. “The challenges have been enormous.
“A teacher’s primary role is to look after the children in your classroom and teach them curriculum, and then layered on top of that, we have a safety factor, and the responsibility has fallen onto the shoulder of all those within the education system to make sure that special rules from public health are followed.”
Bedford noted that teachers were appreciative of the public health rules in place, but they made teaching efficiently and effectively that much more challenging. “Not being able to see a child’s mouth when
language development is there is a huge challenge,” said Bedford. “And, teachers have a responsibility to teach that curriculum and come up with new ways to work.”
He added that more challenges come about when different styles of physical distancing are implemented as well, with educators having to teach across blended learning environments, with some students in
classroom and some over a virtual connection. “Teaching in class and teaching remotely are two very different things,” said Bedford, noting that there is also a great disparity between accessibility of remote
learning over the internet, especially in a rural environment where there is less choice in reliable service
providers. “If you go to some rural parts of the province, you may want high-speed internet but you may not have it, and there are too many children in this province who are significantly impoverished (and can’t
afford it). Even though school divisions are trying to do so much to support these children and these families, whether with food programs or providing them with devices, that still doesn’t fix poverty. You’re trying to address the symptoms, but that’s it.” Bedford also criticized the provincial government for not giving vaccine priority access to teachers, unlike what many other provinces have done. As it stands,
teachers are given the same priority as the general population, meaning the youngest teachers will be among the last people in the province to be eligible for the vaccine. The constant awareness of COVID-19 also adds increasingly more prevalent mental health needs creeping into the teacher and student  population.
“We understand that public health has its reasons for saying you don’t need face mask use from K-3, but it doesn’t take it out of the mind of those teachers, ‘Well, I’m not seven years old. I’m in a different risk boat than a seven or eight year old might be,’” Bedford noted. The introduction of Bill 64 and the results of the K-12 education review also hits harder during a pandemic, stoking the fires of uncertainty and taking away local control over potential regional issues. “The announcement really did an enormous
injustice to school divisions,” said Bedford. “School divisions are the ones who are doing the ground work. They’re the ones who are keeping children safe in our classrooms and working hard to address the concerns of the teachers in classrooms. It’s school divisions and school trustees listening to the needs of the people that work for them and the people in the community, making decisions about how money needs to be spent within those communities because every community is very different. “When Hanover went to Code Red, it was the leadership in the school division that made that happen in our schools. 
And, to have it suggested that school divisions have been an impediment in learning and an impediment in keeping our students safe, that’s an injustice and that’s not fair.” Bedford did acknowledge the positive actions taken by the provincial government, mainly from additional funding and supports eventually 
coming down to school divisions, after a lot of pressure from outside entities. While some teachers’
unions elsewhere in the world have continued to advocate for remote learning and having staff stay at home, Bedford noted that remote learning would not be the recommendation that would work best for
the majority of Manitoba’s students. 
“Back in (last March) when we went remote, it was necessary and we pushed the government to move into a remote learning environment, and I think that’s because there was not a great understanding of
what lay ahead of us,” he said. “We made that call, knowing full well that remote teaching and learning was not going to work for every student. It works really well for students and homes that can afford it
and have access to technology, and works better than for students without that access. “To let you know
what (MTS) members were doing, we had members phoning students on a regular basis at home to check in on them, often occurring in the evening to reach students. We had members delivering educational packages in the rural areas, which meant they were spending hours on the road going from
home to home. I had members who were teaching students on their front lawns. A lot of that was just ensuring human contact, because by the time we went back to school in September, we heard from
many students just how happy they were to be back in school, and the research shows that the best learning takes place when teacher and student are physically together in the classroom. “One of our pushes was to get more federal and provincial money available,” Bedford continued. “You need to bring more teachers into the system so every classroom has a teacher, as in not having a teacher that’s teaching in-class and remotely at the same time.” He also noted that there seems to be a metro-centric approach to how policies and programs are being implemented, such as with a pilot program of rapid 
COVID-19 testing for teachers. “We had been asking for something in August, and it was in late January
when they rolled out a pilot project that was quickly expanded to beyond the pilot divisions, but to my knowledge, you have to come into the city for that rapid test,” said Bedford. “So what does that say to a 
teacher in Swan River versus a teacher in the City of Winnipeg? “When we look at public education,  there’s always a rural component and urban component and we strive to level the playing field between
these two, which is something we don’t necessarily see the government acknowledging during this pandemic.
“I don’t think Bill 64 makes things better for the rural communities,” Bedford continued. “We understand that schools are the heart of communities and the people making decisions (for those schools) need to be
representatives from that community. Those decision’s can’t be made on Broadway.” Swan Valley  Teachers’ Association President Nicole Bobick added that if anyone has concerns regarding the Provincial Government’s changes to education, reach out to local MLA Rick Wowchuk to vote ‘no’ on Bill 64.
“Protect your school teachers, principals, local school boards, local superintendents and public education,” she said.

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Jeremy Bergen
REPORTER
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