Irfan: Shortcomings in COVID plans are making high school a struggle

Every student deserves an academic experience that we can remember joyfully post-graduation. Unfortunately, countless OCDSB students have spent the past two years without balanced classes, clubs or even a bite of cafeteria food.

Ottawa Citizen 3 minute read November 18, 2021

Ottawa students returned to school in late summer – but it hasn't been an easy road. Jean Levac / Postmedia

After two years of tackling COVID-19, secondary schools in Ottawa’s largest school board, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, have changed. Many OCDSB students are concerned by shortcomings in how classes are being organized this school year.

The Ontario government allocated more than $2 billion on the 2021-2022 educational budget to improving schools: $1.6 billion reserved for COVID-19 responses and $85.5 million for learning recovery. This supported the full-time reopening in September. But although upgraded from past COVID-19 procedures, the OCDSB school plan has drawbacks.

Numerous OCDSB schools have dismissed their previous “quadmester” schedules. Instead of classes shortened into two months of lessons, these schools now study two courses per week, rotating to two other classes the following week. The cycle continues for an entire semester. The next semester opens with four new courses identically organized.

Last year, students spent months adopting quadmesters into their school lifestyles. The 2021-2022 system has uprooted those quadmester accommodations, studying, organization and time management skills. Teachers now overload students with homework, materials and evaluations under strict deadlines. This disrupts class performances and has extended the back-to-school adjustment period for secondary school students.

As a former student in the Ottawa Carleton Virtual School Board (OCV), I was used to classes in which material and evaluations came at a steady and adjustable rate. Now, I am struggling to match the fast-paced academics and workload. The OCDSB did not account for the transition of returning virtual students to physical schools.

“I almost fainted in class,” one high school student classmate said, referring to her mask. To limit airborne COVID-19 infection, all students wear mandatory masks covering their mouth and nose. Many students claim the masks make them feel they are suffocating, a feeling worsened by packed classrooms, sitting for long periods and intense instruction. Could you learn while exhausted and feeling trapped?

Teachers mostly skip outdoor breaks for extended lessons, but these should be allowed every class so students can briefly remove masks.

As in 2021, school clubs are open for students, but they are virtual to prevent COVID-19. Clubs are where students can mentally de-stress and build relationships with their peers. Some sports teams are running physically, but these digital clubs lack student participation.

Schools have in place several precautions, including social distancing, sanitizer checkpoints and pre-screening. Within the bounds of these protective measures, students should have at least minimal physical contact with their clubs. Multiple members could be housed in separate classrooms while leaders spearhead activity.

“I wish I could eat cafeteria food again!” said one cafeteria-missing high schooler. COVID-19 closed cafeteria food services in my school, as in other OCDSB schools. The federal government has said there are currently no confirmed cases of COVID-19 spread caused by virus spread through food or packaging. With safe food practices, schools should schedule which grades can purchase from the cafeteria while students eat in either indoor or outdoor school areas, with the area properly cleaned afterwards.

School boards may choose to ignore these issues next to more vital pandemic safety concerns. Yet every student deserves a whole school experience that we can remember joyfully post-graduation. Unfortunately, countless students have spent the past two years without balanced academics, clubs or even a bite of cafeteria food. They will  remember the grief brought by COVID-19.

The OCDSB Approved Strategic Plan of 2019-2023 affirmed its goal is to “Prioritize the dignity and well-being of students in inclusive and caring classrooms.” Thus the board is obligated to continue improving schools for its students, who have earned their right to a happy school year.

For instance, “I would like to see more practices of ‘no-touch ‘greetings between students, having rapid testing available, and setting zones for lunchtime,” said one of my former high school teachers. Many faculty have also made suggestions for the board. OCDSB schools have vigilantly worked to restore in-person education, but there is room for improvement.

Sabia Irfan, 16, is a high school junior student at Colonel By Secondary School in the IB program, striving to be a professional writer and journalist.