The classroom is dim as the students trickled in.
A long pause.
By the time the bell rings, seven students are in the room. There should be 14. I suggest that they can spread out a little, these seven, but they are unwilling to leave the small square of space that has been theirs these past weeks. I can understand: they’re not six feet apart, but it’s been safe so far. Might as well stick with what works.
Several students had emailed me ahead of time; one posts in the chat.
“I won’t be coming in person this week, Miss. I’m sorry.”
“My mother doesn’t think it’s safe this week. Sorry.”
Yesterday as another school board in Ontario made a last-minute switch to online learning for this week, Ottawa’s chief medical officer, Dr. Vera Etches, wrote on Twitter, “We are not dealing with the same virus that we started out with a year ago. The risk of ICU admission is 2 times higher and the risk of death is 1.5 times higher for the B.1.1.7 variant (UK). The virus has changed, and so must our behaviours… I am asking the Province to implement further restrictions, including a province-wide Stay at Home order. My team is in the process of reviewing the COVID data in schools to advise on an approach to take for schools in Ottawa.Mask up. Keep your distance. #StayHome”
But our schools stay open.
Dr. Etches is trying to keep our schools open because she thinks kids learn best in schools – and I agree, but case numbers are climbing and a teacher who caught covid at school is intubated and in the ICU. Today Dr. Etches sent a letter to teachers and parents, reassuring us that “The situation with COVID-19 and schools in Ottawa is currently manageable, as 73% of schools have no people with an active COVID-19 infection where there was an exposure in school, and 98% of schools are free from an outbreak.
The vast majority of COVID-19 in schools originates with community exposures. Situations identified in schools where there was a possible exposure do not usually lead to transmission in schools. Child-to-staff and child-to-child transmissions remain rare in the school setting. At this time, schools are not a major driver of transmission of COVID19 and so closing them alone will not turn this current COVID-19 resurgence around.“
Today, Toronto schools moved to online learning.
I hear rumours of vaccines sitting unused in freezers. The province says that people over 60 are eligible, in some places it’s 50. The clinics are empty – or full. My husband’s friend says we are “only” five weeks behind the US. A pharmacy creates an online “waitlist,” promising to contact us when we are eligible for vaccines. Teachers flock to the website. I share it with my students because many of them will be eligible, too: almost half of them work, many as essential workers in grocery stores or food services; at least one is bringing in money for their family. The vaccines are safe or not safe. We have enough vaccine or not nearly enough. I can’t sift through the fog in my brain.
The Premier says he has “made a massive move…by basically shutting down the entire province” then complains that malls were “jam-packed” this weekend. He scolds and threatens “We’re going to have further restrictions moving forward very, very quickly” like an angry father wagging his finger and telling us to be good.
My friends complain about their children not being in schools. “The unions have too much power.” “Teachers need to get back to work.” “My kids have been at home for too long.” “This is their job.” “We’re going to private school next year; these public school teachers will be sorry.”
I think about my students, staying home to stay safe, staying home to protect each other, staying home so they can go to work to serve the people working from home. I think about them showing up online, trying to learn. I think about myself, standing, unvaccinated, in a room full of almost-adults. We are all trying so hard to do the right thing. I want to hug them, and I know I will not recognize them without their masks. If we pass in the street one day, I will not know who they are.
The anthem ends; we acknowledge that the land we stand on is unceded Algonquin territory. We are quiet in the dim heaviness of the room. We will get through this, too – we will. I take a deep breath. I tell them about books. “You can read this during break,” I say, “You should keep reading.” The quarter will end in three days.
We read. We write. We try to create poetry out of the words we have written this quarter – found poems, shadow poems, blackout poems. We try to create sense from what we have learned, from what we have done.
What have we done?