Breathing underwater

Coady Monk recalls distance learning as a time of “overwhelming stress.” Photo: Bruce Murray

As Halifax’s kids return to school this month, are they ready for the new normal? Are we? 

The question will dog people for years, even generations, to come: Where were you when the pandemic hit? 

Like the rest of us, Coady Monk has a story. “We didn’t know what COVID was back in March 2020,” says the recent graduate of Charles P. Allen High School in Bedford, whose goal was to become a police officer. “No one imagined this happening. It seemed so surreal.”

First, there was the incessant hand washing and doorknob disinfecting. Then, there were the social distancing and the masks that made everyone appear like extras in a medical soap opera. Finally, there were the hastily rigged online learning platforms that insinuated themselves into a user’s private space like so many artificially enhanced hall monitors. 

“I remember an exam where the teachers required us to turn our cameras on for 2.5 hours,” says Monk, who recalls more than a few moments of “overwhelming stress” after being sent home — along with thousands of other Nova Scotia school kids — to pursue his academic career in front of a screen. “Well, you know, a person may be a little insecure about what’s showing in the background … It’s not normal.”

Around the city, even after in-person learning had resumed, the dystopian future had dug in. If you were a fan of apocalypse genre movies, you recognized the signs immediately: the hastily abandoned streets and shuttered store fronts; the blinking billboards instructing citizens to remain calm and “be kind,” the electronic image of someone’s big brother telling someone else to “stay the blazes home,” the socially bubbled kids in family cars dotting school parking lots before sunset.

To a degree, Coady (who had received his first dose of vaccine by the time we talked) still struggles with those memories, those profoundly pernicious glitches in the matrix of everyday life. He’s taking the next year off to consider his options, to get his bearings. But that doesn’t stop him from thinking about today. It’s September and 53,000 Halifax kids are heading back to 135 schools. What about them? What now? 

It’s another good question, and one that’s preoccupying parents, teachers, administrators and, certainly, more than a few pandemically seasoned tykes and teenagers as the first school year of the vaccine era heaves into view.

Is this the year that things return to normal — old-timey, happy-go-lucky normal — for the kids? Or are they looking at a simulacrum of a thing they’ll only truly appreciate in storybooks? 

Most poignantly, perhaps, how have the past 18 months changed the city’s school children? Are we and our educational system equipped to help them deal with and adapt to the way we all live now?

Paul Wozney is president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, a former teacher, and the father of three kids enrolled in Halifax public schools. He’s not so sure about this return to normal business. 

“I think most people have a lot of hope that we’re going to be able to resume life as we knew it this month,” he says. “I don’t think that hope is illegitimate. I think it’s the human condition.”

But, he says, “after in-person learning resumed in June, the lion’s share of new cases happened in publicly funded pre-primary classrooms. We had almost 1,000 kids come down with COVID-19, most of them in the late stages of the school year.”

The problem is especially troubling now that several virulent strains of the virus are on the march. In June, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Ga., reported that at least four variants (Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta) were rapidly gaining traction in the U.S. and throughout the developed world, including Canada. 

These mutations, researchers said, “seem to spread more easily and quickly than other variants, which may lead to more cases of COVID-19. An increase in the number of cases will put more strain on healthcare resources, lead to more hospitalizations, and potentially more deaths.”

Fortunately, it also said, the current crop of vaccines seems to work on them. On the other hand, kids age 12 and under can’t be inoculated. “And they’re the ones who are spreading COVID-19 under conditions that we have set up for them,” Wozney says. 

These conditions include cramped and poorly ventilated classrooms at the worst possible moment in the 

city’s history. “We’ve gone from understanding COVID-19 to being a droplet-transmitted disease, to being an aerosol-transmitted disease,” he says. “Meanwhile, we don’t know how many schools have ventilation systems that meet national standards. How many do not? And how many have none at all?”

And there’s another quandary. Should a fourth wave crash this fall, who’s now able to sandbag the home front? 

“It might sound melodramatic to some, but this has been a really traumatic experience for a lot of families in Nova Scotia,” Wozney says. “We have a huge proportion of Nova Scotians who rely on multiple minimum wage jobs to make ends meet and care for their loved ones, and COVID has threatened their very viability. They were just OK before, but during the pandemic they ended up firmly beyond that margin. And they have not been OK. Their kids have not been OK.”

Amy Spurway, a writer and author and mother of three who lives in Dartmouth, is not so precariously situated. But she can relate. “The saying has been, ‘we’re all in this together’, we’re all in the same boat. But actually, we’re not. We’re in the same sea. And some of us have a boat. And some of us are swimming like our lives depend on it. Some of us are good swimmers, and some of us are drowning.”

Mom Amy Spurway says that for her family, the pandemic brought surprisingly improved access to mental health supports. 
Mom Amy Spurway says that for her family, the pandemic brought surprisingly improved access to mental health supports. Photo: Bruce Murray

Two of her kids (twins) graduated last year. Her 13-year-old is entering Grade 9. All are on the autism spectrum. For her, the threat of new exposures, aging public school infrastructure, and personal reserves of strength and resilience stretched to the vanishing point may be real and present dangers this year, but another big challenge will be ensuring that the province’s education system is responsive to individual needs, especially in a time when rolling crises require nimble thinking.

“One of the fantastic things that has come of this pandemic is mental health services being moved online,” she says. “This actually allowed my oldest daughters access to the type of supports they have needed for years, but we as a family couldn’t manage because it meant finding childcare for the other, it meant getting them to appointments, it meant, you know, parking somewhere.”

On the other hand, she says, “the difference between how the high school and the junior high school handled online learning were completely night and day. The high school kids were allowed to touch base with their teachers online, and everything was posted on Google classroom. There were no supports for my daughter in junior high. So, these are the types of things that can’t be done with one size fits all. There are kids who benefited and did really well with online learning. And there are kids for whom it was an absolute disaster.”

Ultimately, she says, “the thing that strikes me is how this experience has revealed and made clearer and more obvious the humanity of everybody. We saw were teachers teaching from their homes, with their own children calling for them or crawling up on their lap. This is a time that has given us the opportunity to see each other in more human terms…We have an opportunity to move towards a more human-centred education system.” 

Getting “the system” to respond accordingly is what Wozney does for a living. With varying degrees of success.

Currently, the province’s return-to-school plan is a formidable document, fortified with dozens of rules, guidelines, codicils; not all of them straightforward or easy to implement, and none of them individualized or even especially “responsive.” More concerning, the document (which referred to the September 2020 school year, but was “updated” in June) seemed oddly outdated for most of the summer.

“The province is planning for all children to return to school on Sept. 8, 2020,” it says. “This may change if direction is provided to the department by Public Health in response to their assessment of changing COVID-19 conditions in Nova Scotia.” Meanwhile, it asks that educators “open windows when it is safe to do so, ensure [the] ventilation system operates properly and is routinely maintained, and increase air exchanges by adjusting the HVAC system.”

As for viral surface contact, recently determined a non-starter in epidemiological circles, the rules say that “disinfectants should be used to eliminate the coronavirus that causes COVID-19” and that “cleaning and disinfection of high-touch surfaces (e.g. doorknobs, railings, bathrooms, desks, tables, light switches, water fountains, etc.) should occur at least twice daily.”

Says Wozney, before last month’s provincial election: “The reopening plan was announced last August [2020], and this government and Public Health never once went back to it to re-evaluate whether or not it was still working based on updated understanding of the pandemic … We have to start planning for a safe September at the earliest possible opportunity, because you can’t drop a plan on people three weeks before the school year starts, and expect everybody just to be able to adjust because you’ve made a press release … I haven’t heard from the [education] minister in over a month.”

Somewhere in the burdened, broken-hearted centre of all this are the teachers on who almost everything — how the kids do, how they feel, how they adapt, how they perceive their rapidly unfolding, capriciously unreliable universe — depends. “We know they are not babysitters,” Wozney says. “They are exquisitely trained professionals. But, under the circumstances, they are a whole lot more than even that.”

Coady Monk agrees. “The teachers did a phenomenal job,” he says. “If I were going back to school online this year, I would say we need more staffing for educational program assistants. A teacher deals with roughly 30 students in the class, and that’s too many. If we had more EPAs who are able to connect with students one-on-one and have that clear communication with those students … to try and clarify things and try and help the student understand things. That would be great.”

For Monk, though the memories linger and will likely be with him for the rest of his life, they’re not all disturbing or exhausting. Sure, actual graduation was strange or, as he might say, surreal. 

“There were three check-ins,” he says. “The first was by name. The second was by vehicle. You could have up to two vehicles, one for the graduate and other for any families and friends up to four people. At the third check in, you stepped out, walked towards the vice principals, and got ready to go over the crosswalk — a blue and white crosswalk with Cheetah paw print on it. And then you received your diploma, grabbed your photo and left.”

Still, the recollections of the support he received during the months of living and studying covidedly shine brightly. 

“In a way, I’m grateful I got to experience this over the past 18 months,” he says. “You know, for me, personally, my marks went down. That’s not just me; everyone I’ve talked to said their marks went down when they were online. But if I were going back to school, I think, honestly, I would be happy just trying to live every moment.” 

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