Patti Bacchus: Are we burning out the K-12 workforce?

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      A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a reader’s idea to postpone spring break until the last half of June, which didn’t seem like a totally awful idea to me, but it sure did to a lot of people.

      Especially teachers.

      I expected some wouldn’t like the idea, which was intended to discourage people from travelling during the March break, while we await more vaccine, and to save the vacation days for when the weather is better, there’s more for families to do, and for when grandparents may be vaccinated.

      What I didn’t expect (yes, I should know better by now) was how many teachers and school support workers, along with a lot of students (especially high school students on the quarter or octet systems), are barely hanging on and can’t fathom putting the break off. I heard from some who said they were close to falling apart, and postponing the break would be their last straw.

      I knew this was a stressful school year for educators, students, and families, and generally for all of us, and for some more than others. In fact, I’m increasingly worried about the toll it's taking on teachers and others who work in schools, and what the long-term consequences will be for them, their families, and the school system.

      I’m not the only concerned one. The B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) is also concerned, of course, as the union representing B.C.’s 45,000 public-school teachers. It recently had the Stratcom consulting firm conduct a health and safety survey of a random sample of BCTF members to get a picture of the “perspectives and needs” of B.C. teachers.

      The results aren’t surprising to anyone who has been paying attention, but they are worrisome, with more than half (58 percent) of B.C. teachers saying they don’t feel safe working in schools. The union cites the lack of safety procedures and inadequate support for students with diverse needs or medical vulnerabilities, which have made some families feel forced out of the school system.

      The BCTF says the survey results show B.C.’s health and safety measures for schools are still inadequate and teachers are burning out from their increased workloads while their physical and mental health is worsening. They also note some troubling gender dynamics, where women are faring worse than men in the pandemic.

      BCTF leaders are calling for bold action to address these problems, but the government appears to be ignoring them, for the most part.

      Royal Roads study

      Two Royal Roads University professors—Wendy Rowe and Jennifer Walinga—are also conducting a study, looking at how K-12 teachers are adapting to the stress of teaching during the pandemic. They’re working with the Sooke School District to figure out what kind of coping strategies teachers are using to adapt to how the pandemic has changed their work and how they’re dealing with the added stress.

      The hope is that what they learn could be used to find better ways to support teachers and create more supportive working environments for them. I’m not sure we need more research to tell us that, but it won’t hurt if it helps to convince government that it’s time to take teachers’ and other education employees’ working conditions seriously and invest in meaningful improvements.

      What are we doing to our education workers?

      When this damndemic is over, which I hope is soon, what will we regret? What will we be proud of?

      B.C. teachers have been through a lot during the past 20 years—16 of them under the B.C. Liberals, who seemed hell-bent on getting more kids into private schools, closing public schools and selling the land, and stripping public-school teachers of their bargaining rights. Teachers thought they were in for better days when the B.C. NDP took power in 2017, only to find not much changed and they were still stuck with paltry public-sector wage increases that barely keep pace with inflation and hold them at the back of the pack in comparison with their counterparts’ wages in other provinces.

      A worsening teacher shortage

      After the BCTF’s landmark 2016 court victory in their epic battle with the B.C. Liberal government over their stripped contract, districts had to hire more teachers to comply with restored contract language, which led to a teacher shortage.

      Teacher and education-assistant recruitment and retention was a problem in many districts before the pandemic, especially in harder-to-fill posts like French-immersion and technical courses. Many districts had trouble finding substitute teachers and on-call education assistants to cover for absences. Teachers can earn more in other provinces, which usually have lower living and housing costs, so why come to B.C., where it’s more expensive to live and for less pay?

      To add insult to injury, B.C. has some of the weakest COVID-19 school safety protocols in the country, particularly when it comes to mask requirements in schools (B.C. students aren’t required to wear masks when they’re at their desks, and elementary students are not required to wear them at all.)

      Where else are people required to spend workdays indoors in such close proximity to unmasked people? I’d be terrified to work in a school these days, especially with more infectious COVID-19 variants making their way into our communities.

      What really gets me is when those responsible for lax school rules patronizingly praise frontline education workers for doing such a terrific job of making schools safe (while school COVID-19 exposure letters go out at record levels) while ignoring their pleas for stronger safety measures. It’s a sort of gaslighting I fear will have long-term consequences on our school system, as teachers feel devalued and unheard, and some burn out and leave the sector and fewer people enter. Who would want to be a teacher these days?

      While first responders and healthcare workers are, rightfully, recognized and celebrated as heroic and brave, teachers who are stuck in crowded, poorly ventilated classrooms with students who may or may not be wearing masks—and who may have just gone to Calgary to visit relatives—are dismissed as hysterical for saying they don’t feel safe.

      Good grief. Almost half of B.C. schools have reported COVID-19 exposures, and who knows how many asymptomatic students or staff are in schools right now. That’s a kind of gamble I sure as heck wouldn’t want take with my own and my spouse’s health, yet those who work in schools are expected to do just that, every day.

      The least leaders can do is acknowledge the risks

      At the very least, I’d like to see our leaders—the premier, health minister, education minister, and public health officer—acknowledge the risks education workers are taking to keep our schools open. That would demonstrate respect and validation, which is the very least those working in schools deserve. Instead, they get platitudes about their great work while their requests to get the protections that other workers get are ignored.

      Premier John Horgan

      When we’re through this, the last thing we need is a burned-out, demoralized workforce in our public schools. That’s not fair to teachers, school administrators, support workers, and custodians, nor is it fair to the students who rely on them.

      I’m glad the BCTF and Royal Roads are studying how teachers are affected and gathering data, because we’re a data-driven world. I hope that solid evidence of what teachers are already telling us leads to meaningful improvements, but the question is whether it ever will and if it will be too late when it does.

      As usual, it’s the most vulnerable feeling the initial effects: students with special needs who get sent home due to a lack of staff to support them; students who don’t get necessary support from resource teachers because those teachers have been redeployed to cover classes when no substitutes are available; medically compromised students whose parents are keeping them home because they can’t risk them being exposed to COVID-19 at school.

      What we don’t see is how the stress of going into schools each day, especially in communities with relatively high infection rates, is affecting school employees’ mental and physical health, and their relationships. How many teachers will be retiring earlier than they’d planned? How many who would normally work as substitutes a few days a week are choosing not to? How many districts are having trouble filling education-assistant jobs with qualified candidates?

      How bad will it get? We can wait and find out and regret not taking action sooner, or government can act now to prevent further damage. I fear they won’t.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.