By Maria Teresa Pereira
I have been an elementary school substitute teacher for the past 13 years and a preschool teacher for the past 17. I am no stranger to germs. The ways daycares, preschools and elementary/high schools have been able to structure their students' movements around schools have helped limit their students' exposure to COVID-19. I have lived it and seen it in elementary schools for the duration of last year. This in mind, what I have seen at Dawson during our first week of classes has been a disaster. It has gotten me sincerely worried for the first time during this pandemic.
Initially, I was not too worried about coming back to school, even though I was disappointed knowing that school would be back fully in-person. In my opinion, there should have been a hybrid model during this semester as a transition to a fully in-person semester, as many other Cegeps and universities have offered to their students (such as Concordia and John Abbott, to name a few).
What makes me worry is the elevated risk I am taking every day by going to school. I have 5 classes on Mondays alone. In classes, we are packed 40 into a room, elbow to elbow. With an average of 40 people in each class, I'm around 200 people in an enclosed space every Monday, and that is excluding the zoo of people I encounter crammed into the hallways, elevators and staircases. There is no way to social distance AT ALL. To make it worse, there are no hand sanitizers in classrooms. There are some big bottles near major entrances, but the dispensers in hallways are often empty, with a mere note on them saying to ‘look for another station’.
I know my anxiety is probably normal, stemming from the sudden return to reality. Believe me, I want things to become as normal as possible. I was always of the thought that businesses needed to open up fast because things couldn’t remain closed forever. I understand most of all that the mental health of people was at stake in making the back-to-school decisions. I have mental health issues. So does my adult autistic son. I had to let him continue to take the bus and metro even during the height of the pandemic, because it was too detrimental to his developmental acquisitions to stay home. The benefit of him taking public transit far outweighed the consequences to his mental health, so his elevated risk of Covid exposure was warranted in his case, according to my evaluation as his mother.
Taking all of this into account, the return to in-person classes should have been staggered in colleges and universities, where the sheer number of students makes it impossible to manage the students' movements as is possible in less populated elementary/high schools. Students should be able to evaluate and take the risks that they are comfortable taking. Courses could have been offered in person for those who absolutely needed to get out of their houses and socialize (preserving mental health), while the school could have placed cameras in classrooms so that students who wanted to remain home could follow along with their lessons. This would have cut down the number of people on campus, reducing the risk of an outbreak, while preserving students’ freedom of choice. It seems that this decision would have been the best of both worlds. Was it considered? If so, what was the reasoning behind going through with a 5000-student return all at once? It makes no sense.
Now, I know this is all easier said than done. But we have adapted throughout Covid. This is something that could have realistically been done.
I never thought I would be complaining about this situation, however, living through it this week just made me realize how disorganized of a return this was. Students were not consulted, and since we are the ones living through the consequences of the College’s decisions, shouldn't we have been? I was not provided the opportunity to take the calculated risks I was comfortable taking; the choice was made for me, which resulted in me being obliged to sit in a classroom surrounded by 200 students on a Monday alone.
I simply wanted to voice my concern and displeasure at the situation. As the epidemiological situation in Quebec worsens and we continue to spiral downwards into the 4th wave, I'm speculating that we will eventually be online again. It seems inevitable...
As we navigate the ups and downs of this pandemic, please keep in mind that providing flexibility surrounding being in class or online just seems like the right thing to do for us all, doesn't it?
Thank you for considering my suggestions.
Maria Teresa Pereira