Workers' Stories in the COVID-19 Era: Installment #2
July 9, 2021
By Suzanne Spiteri (PhD Candidate, Sociology) and Christina Love (Undergraduate Student, Indigenous Studies and French)
In the second installment of the Workers' Stories in the COVID-19 Era dialogue series, we interviewed an Educational Assistant working with the Peel District School Board to begin to understand the experiences of Canadian educators during the COVID pandemic, both working in-school and from home. In the dialogue below, Felicity, who works to support students with IEPs (Individualized Educational Plan) and unique learning needs, shares her experiences working through the uneasy and unpredictable first full school year under the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many Canadian educators, Felicity describes feeling lower levels of job satisfaction and higher levels of burnout and anxiety as a result of adjusting to the unplanned changes in schooling caused by the pandemic, ranging from a shift to online learning, to mask-wearing and juggling her own family while teaching remotely.
For privacy, all names have been changed to protect the identities of our interviewees.
Suzanne: Can you first tell us what you do for a living? What is your job?
Felicity: I am an educational assistant for special needs and behavioural students. I work with the Peel District School Board. This means that I work as an educational assistant in a mainstream classroom. But generally, I do special needs teaching in the morning and teach students with behavioural demands in the afternoon portion of the day.
Difficulties when transitioning to online-learning when working with special needs students
Suzanne: How has your work changed during Covid?
Felicity: When we went into the schools back in September, I would say it changed a lot. With special needs students, depending on what their diagnosis is, we do work in close proximity. Having students see us wear shields and masks took away a lot of personalization that we have with them. A lot of special needs kids need to see your face, they need to see…. especially like the student that I’m working with right now, he’s often asking me, “Are you okay? Are you happy?” because he doesn't know how I'm feeling because he cannot see my face.
For the most part, even if I have my mask on, I tried to make my eyes squint so he sees that I’m happy, because he needed that visual. When we have the masks on, it is already hard for them to understand.
I actually want to speak more personally to the kid that I work with this year. It’s already very hard for him to understand me sometimes because he can't hear me so once they made the face shields mandatory in school for in-person learning, it was even harder. Now at this point they can barely see my face because there’s that glare from the shield and it fogs up. It was so hard for him to pick up on any of the social cues, not just from me, but from his peers. If there was something they didn't like or if they’re making some sort of a face a him, he couldn't really pick up on them. It was hard for us to express to him, “What you're doing right now is not okay and so-and-so is not okay with that.” He wasn't really understanding because he wasn't picking up on the social cues that usually come with your facial expressions. Well, that was really hard and then, now that we've moved on to online learning…
Suzanne: What are some of the challenges with online learning?
Our roles have just become like show up and see what we can do.
Felicity: We don't want to exclude him from the class, but because of the way the setting of online work is, when he is in the class with the other 14 or 15 kids, I can't be working one-on-one with him because then I am now “not conserving his dignity.” Now the whole class is aware that he’s not at the same reading level, math level, science level. In the morning he does everything with the class, but then I have to put him into a different class, like Google Classroom, so that he can then work one-on-one with me, but then for him he doesn't understand why. He often says, “Why am I in this room?”
It’s hard for us to explain to him that his level, his work, is at a different level. And that I'm trying to conserve his dignity. Then I have to be like, “Oh you know it’s really loud with all the other kids, because they’re all talking so if me and you are just talking here it’s so much easier. You can hear me, I can hear you. And I can present my screen.” I also can't do that with the other kids because they’re all seeing more or less what level of work that he’s doing, right.
It's hard because he doesn't get that social piece which is really big with kids with autism. He doesn't get that social piece of even chit-chatting with his friends because now they have sent out emails that they don't want the kids interacting if a teacher is not present, which I understand why… like there’s a lot of legality around it. But before, I know that they were given a little bit of recess time where they can stay online and sort of chit-chat, but now, basically the teacher is talking and the kids are just, they’re listening, they don’t get to talk amongst each other. They've missed all those social interactions.
So, you really see how difficult it is. And then just that lack of social skills right there. They’re really regressing in that, in that situation, specifically my student with autism. He makes it a point every day when he's done his work, saying, “Can you take me back to class?” So, then I'll text the teacher and say, “Okay I'm bringing him back in.” I'm gonna remind him to mute himself, but if everybody's quiet he doesn't understand that. He's like, “Oh, I see your faces, hi so-and-so, hi so-and-so.” He's distracting them, but at the same time he needs to see them, because otherwise it’s like, “Why am I here? Where's my class?” Like he's asking so many questions that are so hard to answer at the moment.
Suzanne: Going back and forth from in-school learning to online learning, what has changed about your job, or the way that you work, or the nature of your work and what's expected of you?
Felicity: As an EA, I’m not actually supposed to focus on academics. My main focus in the school is behaviour—I’m supposed to teach these life skills. I can’t do that online.
It’s very, very difficult to do with special needs. In school, we use environmental cues. We use a lot of paper things. I use a light feature to keep his volume like, you know, green, yellow, red. We use a lot of resources that we have but are very tangible things. If he's having a rough day, we use fidget toys and such. We can’t do any of that online. When he has those days when he can’t do the work, it’s literally me just sitting at a screen with my mic off, waiting, because I actually cannot physically be there to give him any of the strategies that he needs to refocus.
When that frustration kicks in, my role gets really difficult because I can't use any of my tangibles: “One, two, let's go for a walk. Let's go take a deep breath. Let’s play some basketball.” I can’t physically do that, so if I were to say to him, “Hey, I’m going to put a video of kids dribbling the basketball,” he may or may not do it. In person, 100%, I mean maybe not 100%, but 80% of the time he would acknowledge that he needs a break and he would go with me out of the classroom or take a breath, get some fresh air, or go to the gym.
He can't do that now, he's in an apartment. So, if I were to say to him, “Why don’t you go walk around?” really and truly he can’t walk around a two-bedroom apartment and come back. That energy is not there. It’s hard to continue the day when you can’t use any of the resources. You’re so limited to everything that you’re doing. The major thing is the environment that they’re in when they’re home because he comes from a family where it is just his dad, and dad's working from home so dad also cannot be assisting him.
The Absence of Workplace Support and Community
This is not how we learn to teach, this is not how we learn to educate.
Suzanne: When you're at school, working during the day, you also have a social element in terms of your co-workers and how you relate to other people, like your teaching partner, etc. Has that changed through this?
Felicity: 100%. As EAs, we work as a team. There are moments when certain kids can burn us out. If my student is just not having it today, I can very much go to the classroom next door and be like, “Hey, can we switch for a period? I just need a break. He needs a break from me, I need a break from him. Can we do that?” And we’re able to do that because we work as a team.
I would also say, even just that lunch period where you just get to listen: “This is what my morning’s looking like—what would you do in my shoes?” “You know my student—how do you think I can approach the rest of the day?” We don’t get anything like that now. If I have to speak to my co-worker, I can’t speak to her online—that’s in front of the entire class. I have to now call her on one of our breaks.
Everything has to be done through phone and she can’t help a lot of the time. She'll say, “Hey, would you like me to hop on?” but then you have to leave your classroom to come, so you say, “No, I'll deal with it. We'll figure it out.”
What we have when we’re in school is sort of sharing responsibilities and sort of balancing each other out so that we don’t get worn out. We can't do that anymore.
Working from Home while Parenting
I think that for the educators that are working from home with kids, it is ridiculously difficult.
Suzanne: Has that changed how you feel about your work?
Felicity: The teacher cannot work with him one-on-one. So, I think all our roles have just become “show up and see what we can do.”
Suzanne: Do you think anything that’s changed in terms of your work environment has affected your home, your personal life, your situation with your children?
Felicity: I think that for the educators that are working from home with kids, it is ridiculously difficult. I have a son in grade three and I have a daughter in junior kindergarten. My mornings consist of me doing language one-on-one with one of my students while also sitting with my daughter next to me doing her kindergarten work. In kindergarten, they want somebody to be around. What I've already expressed to the teachers is that it's not possible. As much as I want her close to me, her classroom interferes with my one-on-one. So, she’s singing ABC in the background. My ASD student is not concentrating on me. He’s concentrating on this, even if she has her headphones on, he can hear her singing, but she needs to participate. How does she participate if she’s not singing and moving, but he can hear all of that, even if I have my camera off? He asks me, “What is she doing? What is she singing? I can hear this. I saw that.” When you have autism and ADHD combined, he's 100% not focused on me. It was really hard for me to do my job when I have to be a parent at the same time, and my daughter’s four so it’s not like she has those independent skills yet.
My son is a little bit more independent so he has his desk in his room where he will come up to me here and there and be like, “Mom I need to use your printer or I need to do this and this,” but he has now learned to navigate his work and how to send it whereas before I was doing all of that at the beginning, which was so difficult, so I’m very thankful that his teacher moved from paperwork to basically everything online. That way, he can do that on his own.
It’s really, really hard when you’re trying to teach a class. My teaching partner doesn't have children so in her house it’s quiet. All she needs to do is talk. She does a lot, don’t get me wrong, but what I’m saying is she doesn't have those interruptions in the day, whereas me, when I’m on lunch my kids are in class, when my kids are on lunch I’m in class, which means I am now having the computer on the kitchen counter with the volume low or my mic and camera off and have my student do something while I’m prepping their lunch so that they don’t hear the microwave, so that they don’t hear that my kids are sitting down watching TV, but I have to also be attending to them.
My daughter had an accident the other day. I had to ask my student to wait because I had to take her to the bathroom and help her out. But in a normal situation that doesn't happen if I'm at school. If I'm at work, I'm at work. I'm focused on my work unless it's an actual family emergency. But here, you have to play all those roles at the exact same time and there's no correct way to do it.
My day looks different every single day and it's chaotic.
For example, my daughter had an assessment the other day and she needed to be in a room that was absolutely quiet and somebody could be there with her but her assessment had to be 100% her. If I'm in a room with my daughter, she’s going to look at me after every single question her teacher asked her, so I had to leave her in the basement with a light on by herself and ask everybody else to sort of keep the volume down.
Oh sorry, I didn't add my sister is also an EA for special needs so she's also in the house with her music with her classroom. So, there are four virtual classrooms on at the same time.
Suzanne: You've had to pick up a lot of slack so in terms of these increased burdens at work, and also at home with the kids and having to deal with them. How do you think that has affected you?
Felicity: I think my anxiety is way higher than it's ever been in my life. I think I have to figure out my day, their day, entirely. Right now, I have to detail every part of their day. I have to wake up with enough time for them to eat their breakfast, log online, and then their day is all structured through times differently than mine. My son and my daughter have completely different schedules throughout the day. But we need to make that all work, so that I can still work and keep a professional noise level and am able to work with my kids, and have them be able to have some sort of normality to their day. I can't be entertaining them during lunch, I’m working, so I think as a parent, my stress levels and my anxiety are to really try to get though everyday. And I think frustration, too, stems from how you're with your kids 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and you have to entertain or keep them happy the entire time without the resources. I mean, yes, we do have financial resources from the government. Yes, they are sending extra money for whatever you need. But what am I going to do with this money? I'm going to buy him more pencil crayons and hope that maybe during lunch he colours. But he's not going to do that every day. They need different things. They need that social piece when they can talk to their friends and play with their friends. It's not like, “You have a 15-minute break, go to the park.” That's not really an option.
Suzanne: Do you think you're ready for September? For the kids to go back to school.
Felicity: Yes, I am 100% ready. I do understand what they're doing with the virtual learning and I understand why it's happening. And yes, we weren't prepared for it because when we go to school, this is not how we learn to teach, this is not how we learn to educate.
I am at least in the education field, so I can support my kids, but for parents that are not in the education field, they have to do completely different things throughout the day. Kudos to them because it’s very hard.
Come September, my kids will be going back as long as they can, because they learn differently in person. They need the social skills, they need the interactions. They need that outdoor play for 15 minutes, 45 minutes, etc. They need that lunch break with their friends. I think the social pieces are just such a big part of it. They just need to see their friends and their teachers.
What Policymakers Need to Know
Suzanne: What would you tell those in charge about your work, or how things are changing? What should they have done?
Felicity: I would probably say shorter hours. I don't think children are meant to stay in front of a screen for seven and a half hours a day. I think, medically speaking, it's very bad for your eyes, right? There are frequent headaches! How many students are complaining? My son complains about headaches all the time, so he gets 15-minute breaks.
Even now, a lot of teachers say, “Hey, why don’t you bring the computer outside?” That doesn't really make a difference, you’re still in front of a computer. You’re still digitally, you know, getting everything.
I would say definitely the amount of time that they're expecting kids and educators to be online, the amount of work…the provincial government is still expecting these teachers and educators to make it to the IEP goals, make it to the report card marks. I know, for example, one of the teachers that I work with, she didn't have a lot of marks for certain subjects because certain kids were not showing up to that class. But in order to for you to put an I (incomplete) on a report card, you have to get approval from admin. We don’t have time for that.
If people with power want everything in a timely manner, then you need to lessen your expectations because half of these things are not possible. Like you can’t possibly give a dance mark online when you can’t see these children. There are16 kids jumping up and down, they could be doing God knows what. How are you going to properly assess them?
I don’t think the marks this year reflect students’ actual capabilities. So, I'm putting in a little bit of extra work, but I think the expectations 100% should have been adjusted. We shouldn't have had the same expectations for children with online learning or any student with online learning as they would have in class, because it just doesn't make sense.
Looking Towards the Future
Suzanne: Is there anything else that you would like anybody to know about your work and COVID-19, or how otherwise you have been impacted?
Felicity: I just think overall, it has been a difficult year and a half. We're going on, what, 16 months, 17 months? I think we definitely need to prepare ourselves for the unexpected. I think that we might even need to go into more training. Because if you think of March of last year, we didn't actually get back into school until the end of April, May. Back then, we didn't know how to set up Google Classroom, we didn't know how to start work virtually, we weren't educated on Google Classroom as a program. We had no idea. I had to learn all of that last year as an EA. It was never an option for me to teach special needs children virtually. I would say we should definitely be a little bit more trained for the unexpected, because we know these things can happen. I think we need to be more educated on what to do if something happens because after it happens, we're already struggling.