'The body says no': Three teachers on their decisions not to return to school this fall

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Image: Mwesigwa Joel/Unsplash

Maria Vamvalis was hoping to return to her Grade 8 classroom this fall after previously being on leave as she undertook her PhD research focused in part on youth mental health. After weeks of consideration, Vamvalis has decided not to return to teaching this year, instead opting to continue her unpaid leave. 

"I do not have this trust that the decisions being made by the government are actually in the interest of the wellbeing of students and teachers," she said, calling her decision not to return both an act of conscience and of resistance. 

It's not a choice all teachers can afford; rabble.ca has spoken with several other teachers who say if they could, they would be making the same decision. Vamvalis said it means taking a pay cut, but she will be able to take on project-based work to supplement her income in the meantime. 

Vamvalis, who works for the Toronto District School Board, did not take the decision to not return lightly. Previously, she had spoken with rabble about her concerns with her school's ventilation and her classroom's awkward orientation, which would make physical distancing with 30 some students next to impossible. Vamvalis has a chronic lung condition, and the ventilation in her school already aggravated the problem. 

When the plan was announced, Vamvalis said she woke up the next morning with a feeling of dread. 

"My whole body was saying to me, 'I don't think I can do this,'" she said. "The body says no."

At that time, Vamvalis had been holding off on her decision. She was waiting to see if there were any major changes to the back to school plan that would allow her to feel comfortable returning to school health wise, but would also make her feel like she could adequately support her students.

The biggest problem for Vamvalis on both counts was the lack of reduced class sizes in elementary schools.

"Students need our attention more than ever. Some students are very traumatized. There is a lot that students need to process. There have been lags in learning. This is to me what's unconscionable: that this government is not providing students the conditions they need to actually emerge with greater resilience and well-being from this very unprecedented event," she said.  

While Vamvalis has come to her final decision, other teachers continue to take a "wait and see" approach, as new updates on their particular back-to-school circumstances continue to come in every few days. 

In Vancouver, a semi-retired occasional teacher makes himself unavailable for work

One retired B.C. teacher who still does occasional or supply teaching told rabble.ca he won't be going back to work right away, but will wait to see how things play out for a while.

The Vancouver School Board teacher said because he's on what's called a "retired limited list" of teachers, he has the ability to make himself unavailable to work certain days, or he can simply not answer the phone when he is called on for work. 

Because he's on the list of retired occasional teachers, he's usually one of the last to be called. That said, he said B.C. is generally short on teachers, and if he wanted to, he could easily maintain a full-time schedule even with his current position. 

The teacher, who wished to remain anonymous so as not to jeopardize his working relationships, said he's waiting until he can see how things work out in Vancouver schools before he makes the decision to return.

"At this point, I think it's pretty unlikely I'd go back into a class unless it's shown that enough [safety] measures are being taken," he said. 

For him, B.C.'s lack of mandatory masks in classrooms combined with normal class sizes for elementary schools are the main components holding him back from work for the time being. 

B.C. is only requiring students and staff to wear masks when they are unable to physically distance in crowded common areas like hallways or on busses. 

He recognized that he has the ability to avoid returning to work because he also collects his pension, and said many of the younger supply teachers usually take on as many shifts as they can to make full-time wages.

Supply teachers take on a different risk when returning to school altogether in that they are often itinerant workers, moving from school to school across the city. 

To limit their high rate of exposure to others, the Vancouver School Board is offering occasional teachers the option to choose one or more quarters of the city to work in, limiting their movement regionally, but not eliminating their movement between schools. 

"I'm hoping that they come to their senses. I think there's a fairly good chance that there's going to be some outbreaks and things are going to get shut down again. We're also moving into flu season and all the other respiratory things that come, like colds in the fall. I think it's going to be a bit of a mess," he said. 

B.C. schools return on September 10, a two-day delay from the previously expected start of September 8.

A Toronto adult high school teacher won't be returning to the classroom 

In adult high schools, like the rest of the public school system, things are changing quickly, said one teacher who has been working in adult high schools on a contract basis for three years. The teacher wished to remain anonymous so as not to jeopardize future contract offers.

Typically the way it works, he said, is the schools see what enrollment is like for the year before sending out offers for contracts for individual classes. Registration is ongoing at the moment, so he hasn't received an offer yet. But before he accepts, he has some clear cut standards he wants the schools to meet. 

"I'm not going to go in [to the school]. If they fire me that's fine. If their online schedule is reasonable, similar to college or university, then I'll do it. But if it's designed ... to occupy people's time rather than educate them, then I don't want to do that," he said. 

Adult high schools operate in a completely different context than the rest of the public high schools, he said, because the students are often juggling school with working one or more precarious, low-income jobs.

"These are working class, non-union jobs, jobs with no sick days, jobs where people have less power against their boss, people working under the table jobs," he said. "Very often students are in school sick during normal times."

The teacher hasn't made his final decision yet, but said he is willing to live with less income for a while rather than return to an unsafe environment, or waste his students' time with an online schooling system that doesn't meet their needs. He said he is able to seek out other teaching contracts with colleges instead for the time being. 

Adult high schools in Toronto are set to return on September 15. 

"If what they're expecting from me is bad for the students and bad for me, then I don't want to do it," he said, explaining that adults in high schools typically really appreciate being in a classroom with a teacher as a method of learning, and may not benefit as much from sitting in front of a computer for hours at a time each day.

Chelsea Nash is rabble's labour beat reporter for 2020. To contact her with story leads, email chelsea[at]rabble.ca.

Image: Mwesigwa Joel/Unsplash​

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