The 2020 school year in September was a return to normal for many parents with students going back to learning in person.
Polack was among the teachers returning to in-person learning after recently retiring. Online learning was challenging for Polack and she has preexisting health conditions due to overcoming breast cancer just a year ago. However, Polack felt that she was not done teaching and willingly accepted an in-person position at St. Benedict Catholic school.
“Much to my surprise at the end of September when I was just coming home on a Sunday afternoon from visiting my mom and dad the phone rang at 3 p.m. in the afternoon and it was our school board offering me a job for St. Benedict,” said Polack.
Polack grew up in Montreal and then moved to Toronto. She attended the University of Toronto with the intentions of becoming a doctor. Her plans changed after volunteering at St. Gerald Catholic school when she decided to become a teacher. She graduated from the concurrent program from York University in 1988 and specialized in French Immersion.
From there Polack had a long teaching career, spending the majority of her time — 26 years — at Our Lady of Wisdom Catholic school in Scarborough. In total, Polack has taught 32 years before her retirement.
Polack has taught most grades throughout her career, the exception being kindergarten. Upon accepting the position at St. Benedict Polack learned she would be teaching a kindergarten/ grade one French Immersion split class.
This class in particular at St. Benedict had no permanent teacher. The class was run by a long list of rotating supply teachers.
“I’m very big on routine you know, making sure we do things at the same time we start our day the same way and then you know bit by bit I introduce new concepts,” said Polack. “So, I think establishing a really good routine and you know making sure that they understand the COVID safety rules.”
The student’s desks also had plexiglass shields placed on them.
“I can understand, I think it’s a good idea, it helps to control the spread of the virus right, but it does present some challenges because you know it kind of blocks the field of view for some of the kids,” said Polack.
Among the challenges of establishing a routine, COVID protocols in schools have changed how all classrooms across the province look and operate. Polack said that the creativity of teachers has been the best strategy to make the classroom as normal and enjoyable as possible.
“It’s interesting to see how people’s creativity just sparks,” said Polack.
In Polack’s classroom activity shoe boxes are rotated between students after a 72-hour period. Polack once bought individual Play-Doh sets for each of her students and said it was a huge success.
St. Benedict Catholic school is located in Etobicoke on Kipling Ave. The building is over 60 years old and is located in a hot spot region. Polack learned about the hot spot status at a staff meeting, but it did not influence how she continued to teach.
“I was very worried, but when you start teaching you can’t be preoccupied about that all the time, somehow you just get into the zone,” said Polack. “You just pray and hope you know; you ask God to help protect you and come home safely again.”
Polack has said that she accepted the position to teach even after being retired for less than a year because she was not done teaching.
“My cancer is in remission, but I knew I need to be careful and I have gotten the go ahead to return to work,” said Polack. “But you know, I did it because I miss teaching, I love teaching. When it’s something you’ve done all your life and then you just stop, it’s hard, it’s hard to stop.”
There is also, however, the sentiment, that not enough is being done to protect teachers and students while at school in person.
“I mean like I don’t understand, they say young children aren’t big transmitters of the virus, but now you know we’re in a situation where this variant which is even more contagious,” said Polack. “I don’t understand why the class sizes aren’t smaller.”
Polack also said that she is unable to have two metres of space between each desk, which is the recommended spacing to achieve proper social distancing.
The Ontario government moved back to online learning just before the Christmas break. The return to in-class learning was staggered according to regions while the government boasted another $381 million to help Ontario schools in their safety measures on Feb 1.
Schools in the hot zones of Peel, Toronto, and York returned to in person learning on Feb 16.
Most recently, the Ontario government has also postponed the March break to the week of April 12.
In a combined statement the Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation expressed their concern on the government’s decisions.
“Their decision to postpone, despite unanimous opposition from unions representing educators and other stakeholders in the sector, including all school board associations and the Ontario Principals’ Council, is another example of this government ignoring experts and making decisions that are reckless and baseless,” said the statement.
“Well at least they didn’t cancel it altogether,” said Polack. “I think that you know they didn’t really take the frontline workers and all those affected personally into consideration, no.”
Polack returned to her classroom on Feb 16 with thousands of other teachers who were ready to face the challenges of teaching with new variants of the virus in the community.
Teachers were however, provided some hope in regard to the vaccine rollout. Teachers and other education staff are included in the second phase of vaccinations as stated on the Ontario government’s official COVID-19 website. Until then teachers will continue to work on the frontlines while preparing students for future success.
“You know teaching is a great profession. Sometimes you’re down in the valley, sometimes you’re up on the mountain,” said Polack. “But it’s the best job and the worst job at the same time, but really it’s a blessing to be a teacher, it really is.”