Tiina Kai Paluoja is well known to the Toronto Estonian Community as a member of Kungla and Kõla, Guides and more. She is also a Teacher at Frenchman's Bay Public School in the Durham District School Board who found a way to adapt the Music curriculum to the virtual classroom. As the school year ended, EFC asked Tiina to share her experiences.
Teaching in a Pandemic
School's out for the summer! Usually at the end of the year, there is a sense of finality, closure, and celebration. Not this year. At school, there were no goodbyes to staff, students, or parents. There is still student artwork on the bulletin boards from February of children on ice skates. Classroom calendars are still set to March 12th - the day we left for March Break. Walking through the school, the building did not have its usual summer atmosphere. Instead, it felt like an abandoned building.
I have been a teacher with the Durham District School Board for 16 years and this year was completely different from all the rest. The first half of the year was tumultuous with six strike days and escalating phases of work-to-rule job action. Then, just a few hours after the Durham School Board started March Break, it was announced that Ontario schools would remain closed for two weeks after March Break due to Covid-19. The provincial government launched an e-learning website for students to use during the school closures, and as schools stayed closed indefinitely, that teachers would provide distance learning opportunities to their students.
Not knowing what we would be facing, teachers at my school were granted one scheduled 10 minute period each to visit our classrooms and gather whatever materials we would need. Protocols were specific about using only the main entrance door that would be propped open (to avoid touching) and that we must use hand sanitizer on the way in and out, not touch anything other than our classroom items, and stop absolutely nowhere else in the building. At my school, most of us arrived with wheeled carts, laundry hampers, or suitcases. We did not know what we would need or how long the schools would remain closed and did not have time to think about what we’d like to bring home. I devised a plan to travel around the perimeter of my room and take anything that could potentially be useful, as well as to bring home my plants (which, according to the protocols, was not an “essential item” and should technically not have come home with me). Because I am a music teacher, this included a sturdy music stand, several instruments, and miscellaneous music items such as cork grease, valve oil, reeds, an electric tuner, and mouthpiece puller.
Although music was an optional subject in the eyes of the government, through my Estonian culture I was brought up to understand and appreciate the importance of music, especially in challenging times. My approach was to offer something light and enjoyable that could be completed at whatever pace best suited the individual students. Each week I posted a “Music Monday” newsletter for each grade I teach (grades 3-8). The newsletters included links to songs we sang previously in class as well as new ones to learn, often with actions or silly lyrics. I also included interesting music facts, videos about how instruments were made, and activities and games to try at home. In retrospect, I wish I had not asked 364 students to send me videos of themselves playing “Baby Shark” on household items.
Throughout the 14 weeks of school closures, it was made very clear to DDSB employees that entering the school for any reason at all was voluntary - in fact, mostly discouraged. All entry into the building was tracked to be able to inform us of any contact tracing should there be anyone who tested positive for Covid-19. I volunteered to assist with technology deployment. Families were able to request a Chromebook (laptop) to borrow from the school to be able to participate in distance learning - not everyone had enough devices at home for the whole family to use. Families arrived at a scheduled time and pulled up beside the front door of the school. After showing their student’s name through the car window along with identification, they popped their trunk and got back into their car. Wearing gloves, we put the laptop into their trunk and walked away. They then had to close their trunks themselves before driving away. Everything was as contact-free as possible. Every laptop in the schoool was lent out and since the time-line for schools re-opening is currently unknown, families were allowed to keep their borrowed technology over the summer.
One of the highlights of the end of the year is always grade 8 graduation. However, with all of the strict protocols in place, a traditional graduation ceremony was not going to be possible. Each school celebrated grad in their own way, but I feel that my school did an exceptional job with what we called “Uber Grad”. On the night that would have been grad, in teams of two staff, each in our own decorated cars, we visited all 72 grads (about 9 houses each). We dressed up, as did many of the graduates and their families. Wearing gloves and standing two metres away, we presented the graduates with their grad certificates, special awards, honour roll medals, and a personalized lawn sign for each graduate. At the end of the evening, we sent out a video compilation of all of their teachers, past and present, wishing them well. A few days later, we also sent them a slide show that included pictures of each grad from their "Uber Grad" experience. It was a strange experience but it also felt really good to be able to celebrate their accomplishments in such an unforgettable way.
The future is unknown. The way schools will re-open is unknown and teachers will likely find out when the public does via public service announcements from the government. I look forward to a time when I can finally see my students again and we can sing and play instruments together.
Want to know more? Read more stories from teachers in our community like Anneliis Põldre, Elli Kipper and Alexandra Wilbiks. Or read about our frontline healthcare workers like Teija Jõgi, Kristiina Nielander-Hildebrandt and Tomas Saun.