Students take a walk to Toronto City Hall.
Students take a walk to Toronto City Hall. Credit: Cathy Crowe Credit: Cathy Crowe

September marks the return of students, teachers, and support staff to the classroom. Added to the annual emotional mix of anticipatory anxiety and excitement this year is worry over another COVID-19 variant that has already showed signs of causing school disruptions in US states that started their school year in August.

In a recent article in Kingston’s Whig StandardCOVID-19 will harm students” infectious disease specialist Dr. Dick Zoutman points to the obvious ways schools can be made safe: proper ventilation, HEPA filtration and mask wearing.

Teachers and students tell me that part of their concern about re-entering the classroom has to do with the unknown. How safe is their classroom?

Full disclosure: I teach. I still mask indoors, I monitor COVID risk at indoor locations with a CO2 monitor, but I mostly work from home and do zoom, outdoor or patio meetings. This fall, given the COVID risk predictions, I plan to do most of my teaching outside of the classroom.

Dr. Zoutman makes a sensible recommendation to alleviate anxiety over classrooms: “I would like for the Government of Ontario, the Ministry of Education to create a website that lists every school by name and what they’ve done in terms of protections.”

Scott Martin in a recent article addresses Canada’s pandemic failures. He references Raywat Deonandan, a global health epidemiologist: “Deonandan believes the biggest issue with Canada’s current pandemic response is communication. He said that the gov’t has put the responsibility of appropriate communication on scientists who volunteer information to clarify things for the public.”

I couldn’t agree more and it’s bizarre that I get infectious disease updates and concerns pretty much only on X (formerly Twitter). Currently, there is only spotty coverage of the pandemic on mainstream media. There has been egregious silence from local, provincial, and federal public health officials on COVID data, trends, and recommended prevention measures. In fact, a September report to Toronto’s Board of Health on the impacts of COVID-19 on the health of school-aged children and youth doesn’t even mention air quality, masking, or other prevention measures.

While we have made and continue to make grave errors in our pandemic management, there have been some outcomes that could be considered positive for some. The nature of work has shifted to add the option of flex hours and work from home, our expectations on use of public space such as parks has been heightened and electronic communication tools have expanded.

The pandemic also led to some innovative ways to teach students in a safe environment. Outdoor classrooms, open-air tents, excursions to local parks, enhanced nature lessons, land-based learning, to name a few.

Why not learn from these experiences and incorporate them into ongoing core programs?

We can all remember our first field trip from school that got us away from our classroom desk. For me it was Miss Audrey Wilson’s Grade 3/4 class outing at 7 a.m. to the Cobourg harbour on Lake Ontario to see sandpipers. In later grades there was the annual trip into Toronto to visit the Royal Ontario Museum. There is a reason we remember these trips. They usually had a hands-on component, included new experiences, offered socializing with interesting people (including classmates) and most importantly they were fun.

Over the years, getting out of my workplace (a health clinic) for outdoor teaching experiences have been such a big part of my work that I devote a chapter to the topic, “Take a Walk With Me. Walks for Social Justice”, in my memoir A Knapsack Full of Dreams.

“The concept of walking, seeing, experiencing to build community is an old one. In present day there are historical walks, ghost walks, artist studio walks, Good Friday walks and Jane’s walks which occur around the world and celebrate and further the city building work of urbanist Jane Jacobs.”

In the memoir I recount walks I have led including supermarket tours, environmental walks, housing and homelessness walks and community health and social justice walks – the latter initiated by nursing students who were frustrated with the gaps in their in-class learning.

As I now walk my city and advocate for more public washrooms, better park signage and support the fight to save Ontario Place and the Science Centre, I now think the term ‘urbanist’ nurse best describes my practice.

Like many I became an avid COVID birder thanks to a wellness Zoom on birds for faculty and staff at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU). It reignited my public school memories of birding with Miss Wilson. The zoom led me to buy a pair of binoculars, download the Merlin app on my phone and find a Toronto District School Board adult learning outdoor nature class. That course, led by the late Miles Hearn, in rain or shine or snowstorm, was a Master class in teaching: walk and talk about what you love, revisit the subject over and over, follow it up with photography and stories, then give a 10-question fun quiz. A testament to his teaching, after his passing, is a group called Friends of Miles who carry on their own weekly Monday – Friday birding/nature walks teaching each other, often employing some of Miles’ teaching methods.

Teaching is all about being in the moment, being timely and relevant, not boring and hung up with theory and compulsory readings.

Toronto is at a crossroads and in crisis. There is a huge ‘to do’ list of problems that need attention to make Toronto a better, more liveable, and affordable city.

I’m sure the same can be said for your community.

Climate change and wildfire smoke, the housing crisis, a severe shelter shortfall, a homelessness state of emergency, growing encampments, the refugee crisis, cuts to public transit, the unknown status of COVID this fall and winter, affordability issues, not enough public washrooms, shootings and stabbings, and an enormous city budget shortfall – and that’s not the entire list! These are weighty topics that cross all disciplines and some of the learning on these issues can and should take place outside of the classroom. Experts would call this experiential learning.

This fall I’ll be leading walks for TMU students and staff to look at politicians, not birds. I’m calling the series Political Literacy and we’ll be walking to City Hall to experience the whole gamut of goings on there, in real time.

Other TMU instructors have developed a special topic course on the successful St. Lawrence Neighbourhood for urban planning students. Again, timely because in a housing crisis, this community is a living example of what our country can do when we fund housing. Of course, students will walk in the community.

Reena Tandon, who leads the Community Engaged Learning and Teaching Initiative (CELT) at TMU knows a lot about creating successful learning experiences. She collaborates with professors and community leaders to bring exciting opportunities for students. These can range from visits to food security programs, Myseum photograph projects, a Visualizing Crim project, photo-voice projects, creation of a mural. These are all embedded in academic courses and offer creative learning opportunities for students and give back to the community.

The same can be true for all grades and levels.

As I say at TMU: the community is my campus. It can be yours too.

Cathy Crowe

Cathy Crowe

Cathy Crowe is a street nurse (non-practising), author and filmmaker who works nationally and locally on health and social justice issues. Her work has included taking the pulse of health issues affecting...