Island schools still COVID-free, but teachers report heavier workloads, stress related to pandemic

·6 min read

Teachers Under Strain: CBC News journalists in Atlantic Canada and Eastern Ontario teamed up to send out questionnaires to thousands of teachers to ask how they're feeling two months into an extraordinary school year. More than 2,000 teachers replied.

The number of COVID-19 cases across P.E.I. has remained low and there hasn't been a positive case in any Island school, but despite that, some Island teachers say they're facing increasing workloads, added stress and difficulties managing public health guidelines while in the classroom.

Officials with the P.E.I. Teachers' Federation said they're hearing from teachers from across the Island. While the majority say they are happy to be working in schools with their students, returning to the classroom has come with new anxieties and challenges.

"Our common themes would probably, certainly be around workload issues, the workload that's being placed on teachers and administrators," said federation president Aldene Smallman.

She said on top of teaching, educators now have new responsibilities like enhanced student supervision, cleaning protocols and monitoring students for symptoms, which she said create concerns about workload and possible burnout.

"It's only October and teachers and administrators are tired. It's kind of sort of the tired you would see probably close to the end or middle of the year," Smallman said.

Smallman said some teachers have also told the federation they feel isolated at work and disconnected from their colleagues due to the cohort systems that are in place.

Angela Walker/CBC
Angela Walker/CBC

"It's allowed us to be back in classrooms. It has also, though, caused staff to not be able to interact and collaborate as they have done in the past, which has had a huge impact on the classroom."

Teachers are also facing a general sense of anxiety within schools, according to Smallman. She said teachers are anxious when students enter the classroom with COVID-like symptoms and it's difficult not to worry about the possible effect that may have on students, their families and staff within the school.

She said the approaching cold and flu season isn't doing anything to help ease teachers' minds.

"I think it goes without saying, you know, anxiety levels are high and being responsible for the safety of students is a huge responsibility," she said.

CBC Investigates

As part of an ongoing project, the CBC's Investigative Unit emailed a questionnaire to 1,400 educational professionals across P.E.I. asking about their experiences so far in the 2020 school year. The instructions requested that only teachers respond.

The anonymous questionnaire went out across the province at all levels of public schools, using publicly accessible school email addresses. It asked about topics such as how well teachers thought they had been able to follow public health guidelines and how they currently feel about their profession.

A total of 77 teachers responded to the questionnaire with about half also leaving written comments about their experience during the school year so far.

Several of the teachers who responded told CBC News they had concerns about crowding in schools, as well as students and teachers not being able to physically distance while in the classroom.

Many teachers also said they're facing increasing workloads, elevated anxiety and stress while on the job.

"I am physically, emotionally, and mentally drained. The teaching profession has its highs and its lows and is certainly demanding. It is a great profession, but with COVID, never have I felt such a disconnect from my colleagues," one teacher said.

"There have been a lot of increased expectations with very little extra support… more supervision and less prep time will equal teacher burnout for many," another respondent wrote.

Another teacher who responded said: "Physical distancing is practically impossible in kindergarten/elementary without drastically reduced class sizes… Teachers are already overworked, and the extra precautions have only added to that workload."

In an email, a spokesperson for the French Language School Board on P.E.I. said the board asked its teachers to not participate because CBC News did not submit a formal request to speak to its staff. After CBC submitted a formal request, no teachers were made available before deadline.

Province hearing concerns too

Education Minister Brad Trivers said he's heard concerns from teachers as well. Trivers did not address the CBC questionnaire directly because the project was not endorsed by the Public Schools Branch, but he did speak to the concerns raised by the Teachers' Federation and to his department.

"We have definitely had teachers contact us at the department and teachers contact me personally with some concerns about, you know, their safety and whether we're doing enough to secure it and as well really just the amount of stress they're under and their workload, but I like to think that relatively, those are a low number of teachers that are contacting us," said Trivers.

John Robertson/CBC
John Robertson/CBC

Trivers said he's also heard concerns from teachers about physical distancing in schools, but overall the operational plans in place in Island schools have been successful. He also said the province is ready and willing to work with health officials to adjust plans if necessary.

"I think it's natural for everybody to be feeling some anxiety and stress as we go into uncharted territory but the key thing is we're learning all the time and we're willing to adjust and make changes as needed," Trivers said.

He also said that if the current situation on P.E.I. were to change and cases of COVID-19 emerged in schools, the province would be prepared to move to alternative teaching models if that were necessary.

'At the end of the day, it is adding up'

Norbert Carpenter, acting director of the Public Schools Branch, said he's aware of some of the concerns the Teachers' Federation is hearing about workload and stress from its members. Now the PSB is working to learn more.

"Everyone's on high alert and as we know, that can be stressful in itself. We're worried about safety, we're worried about the protocols that are in place," Carpenter said.

Shane Hennessey/CBC
Shane Hennessey/CBC

"At the end of the day, it is adding up, and we realize that. So we continue to work with administrators to get feedback about what they're hearing from their teachers."

He said the PSB has already collected information from some teachers and administrators from across the province, which it's now reviewing. Now, he added, the branch will be working with the Teachers' Federation to find ways to help teachers manage the added workload.

Methodology

On October 8, the CBC's Investigative Unit sent a bilingual questionnaire to 1,402 publicly available email addresses that were listed on P.E.I. public school websites. The goal was to get feedback from teachers in order to better understand the experience of educating children during a global pandemic.

The questionnaire closed on October 12 at 11 p.m. AST.

Opinions contained in the CBC questionnaire should be treated differently from the results of a public opinion poll or survey.

The sample of respondents is not necessarily representative of either the voting public or of all the elementary and high-school teachers in the province.

If you're a teacher or educational professional and want to share your experience in the education system in this time of COVID-19, please email: brittany.spencer@cbc.ca

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