High stress, exhaustion, heartbreak: that is how some high school teachers describe working through the second wave of COVID-19.
High school teacher Courtney Scratch worries that the current system isn't working for students or parents, and might be doing them a great disservice.
"To try to keep up with the expectations that were put both on students and on teachers has just been, honestly impossible," Scratch said.
The new quadmester system used by the Greater Essex County District School Board splits the school year into four periods, to allow students to be split into two groups — or cohorts. It makes for longer classes and condensed curriculum. Courses that used to be taught over the course of five months are now being taught in eight weeks.
"It's virtually impossible in certain cases for the students to keep up," Scratch said. "And the feedback that we're getting from them is that they're just getting through it. They're just scraping by. They're not really retaining anything. It just feels like one hurdle after another."
Scratch was assigned to teach mathematics completely online for her first quadmester. She was responsible for two classes and a total of 60 students.
A key challenge for teachers, Scratch explained, is lack of preparation time.
She explained that the way the school year is split up, teachers get prep time for only two of the four quadmesters. She said, for her first quadmester, she got none.
To make up for that, Scratch said she would wake up every morning at about 4 a.m. to prepare her lessons in time for the start of the school day. She would teach throughout the day, taking her lunch hour to meet with students and speak with parents. Once she got home, she would continue marking assignments and preparing lessons into the evening.
"Eventually I would just work until I had to fall asleep and then I'd set an early alarm to get up and do it all again," she said.
She said students were asking for more review, more assessments, one-on-one time, and so on, which she often wasn't able to accommodate because there simply wasn't enough time.
"One of the things I think is not being discussed enough is the equity issues that arise because of this," Scratch said.
"Imagine if these students had a teacher who was only working with 30 students and had prep time during the day. The experience of those students would be getting would be absolutely night and day. So it's really not fair to them that this is what they're getting because of the expectations that were piled up on their teachers."
'Breaks my heart'
Feeling like she's been unable to give her students everything they need has been "heartbreaking," Scratch said.
"I just think about what could I have done differently had I had more time during the day to work with them in small groups, to work with them individually, how much more dynamic my lessons could have been had I been able to plan them," she said.
"To think that in any way I have failed to equip them for the next steps of their mathematical journey — it breaks my heart in more ways than I can say."
That heartbreak and sadness is not unique. Erin Roy, the district president for the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, says she's heard hearing similar stories from many teachers.
"We put our a survey to our members and some of the comments were heartbreaking and brought tears to my eyes," said Roy.
In addition to the difficulties around the curriculum, Roy added that teachers are missing the connections and interactions that come during a typical school year, even though they understand the restrictions are to keep everyone safe.
"Even our most seasoned teachers, they're somewhat broken because they're not able to do those things."
Further to that, Roy explained that teachers are dealing with challenges like never before, "stress on top of stress," from struggles with technology, to dealing with parents who are angered by the challenges the school year has presented for their kids.
"It's typically the front line worker that's getting that frustration taken out on them. And I feel like that's happening with our teachers a lot," Roy said.
Union asking for changes
Roy said the union is working to make improvements moving forward.
She's calling for better technology for teachers, more technical support for students and parents, more training for virtual delivery of curriculum, and additional attendance counsellors to assist with disengaged virtual learners.
She said she's also advocating for the board to reconsider the quadmester teaching model, and to look at other models being used in other parts of the province that might be more successful.
For Scratch's next quadmester, she's shifted to in-person teaching, and her schedule now includes preparation time. Having more time to plan "feels almost surreal to feel such euphoria over something that should be an expectation," she said.
She's grateful for the time, but also worried for her colleagues who are now in her shoes, experiencing the burden of not having any prep time for the first time.
Scratch said she feels the Ministry of Education put the school boards and staff in an impossible situation but said she's hopeful for a solution that can still keep schools safe, while creating a better learning environment.
Neither the Greater Essex County District School Board or the Ministry of Education responded CBC's request for comment by deadline.