Carihi teacher Nicolas Pisterzi says there’s no doubt about it, school is different these days. Photo contributed

Carihi teacher Nicolas Pisterzi says there’s no doubt about it, school is different these days. Photo contributed

COPING WITH COVID: School staff take up the challenge of delivering education safely during the pandemic

SPECIAL REPORT: Education staff have to interact with hundreds of children

Fifth in a series

Teachers are frontline workers critical for society to keep functioning and keeping the learning environment for our children safe.

That was the message from School District 72 trustee Daryl Hagen back in November when after eight months of the COVID-19 pandemic, he and his colleagues on the Board of School Trustees were becoming concerned that teachers and school support staff were being forgotten, especially when, at that time, the approval of a vaccine was on the immediate horizon.

The SD72 school board sent a letter to the provincial government asking it to put teachers and school support workers in amongst the first group of people to receive the vaccine. That hasn’t happened as the vaccine rollout began just prior to Christmas but the trustees’ point was that school staff have been on the frontline of this pandemic ever since the province mandated that students should return to school with a mix of online and in-person instruction.

Trustees noted that teachers and school staff rolled up their sleeves and went to work making the school environment as safe as possible.

School board chairperson John Kerr in a letter on behalf of the SD72 Board of School Trustees, expressed “heartfelt admiration and appreciation” for all School District 72 employees who have made the return to school for students as safe as possible. These employees are providing an essential service to the children of B.C., he says.

“Despite uncertainty, frequent changes, fatigue, safety concerns, and stress, employees worked long and hard to make the return to school for students and colleagues as safe as possible,” Kerr says. “Despite some remaining concerns and questions that remain unanswerable, they continue to do so in classrooms, in hallways on buses, and on school grounds from the time students arrive each day until they leave.

“Those who work in classrooms are in a confined place with large numbers of students who are not required to wear masks. These workers are with the students for extended periods of time and they may face the increased threat of infection from the COVID-19 virus as a result of these conditions.”

To demonstrate support and appreciation for the work done by school district employees and to underline the board’s concern for their ongoing health and safety, the board “strongly requests and advocates that these employees, both in our district and across the province, be considered front-line workers who are providing an essential service.”

The board’s letter arose from a Campbell River Board of School trustees meeting held in November in which trustees felt teachers and school district employees were not getting the recognition they deserved in the face of the pandemic.

Trustee Richard Franklin said at that meeting that “there’s not very many positions in our society where you have an adult in a room with upward of 30 students with no masks on but that is what faces our teachers and educational assistants every day.”

Like nurses and doctors, teachers and school employees are placing themselves in a position of risk and they need the board’s support, Franklin said, and to that end, he put forward a motion to have the government place a high priority on providing a COVID-19 vaccine to school district employees.

Because the school board’s letter was sent to Minister of Education Jennifer Whiteside Dec. 2, it recognized that vaccine rollout plans were most likely already underway. However trustees felt it was important to publicly support school district staff and alert the public to the impact the pandemic is having on employees just doing their jobs. They also felt school staff deserve credit for their courage in the face of the pandemic. Like all frontline employees, they not only do their job but have to worry about the potential impact on their own families.

Carihi teacher Nicolas Pisterzi is one of those teachers at his post in the classroom. He welcomed the return to work even under the pandemic conditions.

“It’s good to be back, even during a pandemic,” he said. “Working online through the lockdown and comparing it to our work life now, I would take coming to work each day hands down. I enjoy what I do in the classroom. I felt that the online learning wasn’t best suited for me as a teacher, and also noticed that quite a few students struggled in that model.”

Pisterzi is confident the measures in place in schools will provide a safe atmosphere.

“The school district does a good job to provide a clear outline for staff, parents, and students when it comes to the COVID-19 protocols,” he said. “They have also supplied masks and sanitizer throughout the district, which has been helpful in maintaining a clean classroom.

“Although I have found it a bit nebulous when there have been exposures in our school. Staff are not provided with much information, but it’s likely for good reason. For example, when Carihi’s first exposure went public, I was coming back into cell reception from fishing with my kids. I found out about the COVID exposure through my friend who texted me and asked if I was okay and if I knew anything.”

Not knowing certainly creates worry among teachers, he said, especially those who are immunocompromised. However, he said it looks like Island Health has been handling the pandemic well.

“For me, the proof is in the low number of cases in our schools,” Pisterzi said. “I feel safe, yet fully know there is a risk stepping into the classroom each day.”

The pandemic has necessitated a change to the way things are done in the classroom.

“I have noticed both positive and negative shifts at the high school level,” Pisterzi said. “Schools are different today, without a doubt. The new five week cohort model in our district high schools is intensive and forces teachers to try new things. It can feel exhaustive at times.

“I find this part of teaching in the pandemic a unique challenge. I’ve tried a myriad of new ways to engage students because I have them all day. Dad jokes only last so long.”

A positive, though, is that everybody’s no longer bound to the bell at Carihi, “which is honestly quite liberating. We have staggered start and end times for each of Carihi’s school wings, as well as lunch times, to reduce student interactions and clustering. Not having bells allows a more fluid way to teach.”

In fact, Pisterzi believes schooling during the pandemic has given high school teachers more professional autonomy and have more design power throughout their day. Without bells and the regular timetable of four 75-minute classes each day, this new model gives them greater choice in how they approach their delivery, he said.

Pisterzi, who is known for launching Carihi’s innovative and much-heralded fly fishing program, gave us his thoughts just prior to the Christmas break.

“Heading into the holidays I’m looking forward to spending some quality time with my family,” he said. “Maybe I’ll check out a river or two for some steelhead, but I’m hoping most of us will follow the ministry’s protocols, so when we’re back, we’re not dealing with more flair ups of COVID-19.

“Another shutdown would feel disheartening because being around the kids is what motivates me. It’s what motivates us as teachers. I sell learning best in person, not through a computer.”

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