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A empty classroom is pictured at Eric Hamber Secondary school in Vancouver on March 23, 2020.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Shelley L. Morse is president of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF/FCE), the national alliance of provincial and territorial teacher organizations representing more than 300,000 elementary and secondary school teachers.

With Canada Day behind us, summer is officially under way. But even though school is out and children are on vacation, this summer is like no other.

Instead of the long, hot, carefree days of years past, trepidation and anxiety fill the air, and questions abound for what lies ahead. The countdown to September has begun, and in too many parts of the country, there are no concrete plans for how to properly reopen schools in the fall.

When the pandemic descended upon us in March, most of us were caught flat-footed. Over the span of a couple of weeks, the virus crashed through Canada’s borders like a tsunami, turning our lives upside-down seemingly overnight. Those forced into unemployment struggled to put food on the table; the threat of violence toward our most vulnerable citizens increased as tensions grew within households; the lack of access to WiFi or digital devices cut off countless children from their educations.

Now, four months into this crisis, governments at all levels have had ample time to look toward the fall, winter and beyond. Unfortunately, with less than two months before students are supposed to head back to school, the education community is left wondering how that may happen, while parents and guardians scramble to arrange alternative learning options amid great uncertainty.

But even with the little time we have left to prepare, together we can develop a plan that helps guarantee students have equitable access to the quality, publicly funded education they deserve, all the while ensuring that both they and school staff members are as safe as possible.

With the preliminary results of a countrywide teacher survey (conducted by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation) forthcoming, one in which almost 18,000 teachers from coast to coast to coast participated, we know that online, distance learning is no replacement for in-class instruction. Learning solely through a screen is detrimental to providing quality education and an affront to building a more equitable society.

Distance learning, while decreasing the threat of spreading the coronavirus, has ignited crises of inequity and mental health among students and teachers. According to our survey, two-thirds of teachers expressed concerns about the impact that learning via screens is having on the physical, mental, social and emotional well-being of their students. Still, more than eight out of 10 respondents are concerned about returning to school buildings.

Under these circumstances, we need to rethink what constitutes a school building. Physical distancing will be a reality for months to come, and since we know that distance learning does not facilitate equitable learning, it is time to consider other available spaces in our communities where education can take place safely and in person. Certain offices, arenas and university campuses may be empty or underutilized after the Labour Day weekend, making them the perfect alternatives for holding smaller classes. And, when the weather permits, outdoor classrooms are also good options.

At the same time, all governments need to address the mental health and well-being of students and teachers. This is why more, not fewer, teachers and education-support personnel, including trained counsellors, are going to be needed when the new school term starts. A significant focus for teaching in the near future must be rooted in trauma-informed practice. Additional supports for teachers and education-support personnel to effectively address how the COVID-19 crisis has affected student behaviour and mental health will be needed.

Until our children and young people get back to learning together, we must ensure that those who need breakfasts receive them; that those who face difficult situations at home have a safe outlet and adults they can confide in; and that all students have the same opportunity to learn. This is why distance learning should only be a temporary solution – and why moving on from it is so important.

These are just some of the ideas and insights that teachers can share with all governments to ensure that our youngest and most vulnerable – and most importantly, our future leaders – are able to receive the quality education they need.

When the dog days of summer begin to fade into fall, I hope that governments and teachers can stand together, knowing that shared expertise will have made a return to school possible for all students. It will be something for our children to look forward to as we navigate our way through a crisis that is far from over.

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