Teachers with Ottawa's largest school board say they're still waiting for important details about the coming year, including which courses they'll be responsible for teaching.
Luke Simoneau, an English and music teacher at Cairine Wilson Secondary School in Orléans, said he likely won't have his teaching assignment until September.
"Right now, I can't really do any prep work," Simoneau said.
Simoneau said expectations are constantly changing — after Tuesday's Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) meeting, he learned he'd be responsible for teaching one subject for 225 minutes, every day.
Originally, the board planned to have high school students tackle two subjects per morning on alternating days, but the Ministry of Education ordered it to change course in order to limit the number of contacts students have with one another.
"We've gone from a 75-minute period, which is normal for us, to 225 minutes," Simoneau said. "I would challenge any adult to be able to remain attentive and absorb the information ... from a 225-minute lesson, let alone a teenager."
Stephanie Kirkey, interim president of the local bargaining unit for the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, said it's been a stressful August for educators, who have had to adapt not only to more concentrated schedules, but also physical distancing and the ever-chaning demands of remote learning.
"There's no handbook for how to go back to school in the middle of a pandemic," Kirkey said. "We're all doing the best we can with what's being dealt to us."
Striving for safety, not 'perfection'
Camille Williams-Taylor, the OCDSB's education director, acknowledged that tension during Tuesday night's board meeting.
"The target here is not perfection. The target is establishing a quality, safe entrance," Williams-Taylor said.
Susan Gardner, president-elect of the local branch of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (Ottawa Carleton ETFO), said elementary teachers are also waiting for their assignments.
"It makes them feel that they're not prepared. Normally by this point, people not only know their assignment, they've been working on lesson planning," Gardner said.
On Tuesday, the OCDSB pushed back the staggered start of the school year from Sept. 3 to Sept. 8. Gardner said teachers may need even more time.
"We're just not ready. We would've preferred for there to be a greater deferral to the school year."
Larger online class
Janice McCoy, the OCDSB's superintendent of human resources, said the board is trying to create larger-than-average online classes at its six virtual elementary schools so the in-person classes can be smaller — while still meeting target average class sizes laid out in the collective agreement.
Gardner said that still raises some issues for teachers.
"We do understand that it's a bit of a conundrum, but it's a bit of a concern. The distance learning is new for many people. Having 35 students [in an online class] that you need to be accountable to and responsible for their education can be very challenging," Gardner said. "With remote it's hard to tell if there's true engagement or not."
Gardner estimated the board will need about 750 elementary teachers to instruct online classes, based on the proportion of students who have opted for remote learning. She said initially, only about 300 teachers applied.
OCDSB teachers had until Tuesday to express an interest in moving to virtual classrooms.
In an interview on CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning Thursday, Kirkey singled out the provincial Ministry of Education for being uncooperative during the back-to-school planning process, while Gardner blamed the province for not providing enough funding to ensure a safe return to school.
Premier Doug Ford, speaking at Algonquin College in Ottawa the same day, said he's getting frustrated with teachers unions.
"We have the incredible front-line healthcare workers, [personal support workers], doctors, nurses, through the peak of the pandemic dealing with COVID patients ... now it's time the teachers step up. Everyone has sacrificed," said Ford.
"And I differentiate between the great teachers we have in this province versus the teachers' unions who [have] wanted to fight with every government for the last 50 years."