The power went out the day Emma Gunter’s teaching placement was cancelled. With no internet connection, she didn’t know what was happening until the principal of the Quebec elementary school where she was on practicum called an assembly about half an hour before the end of the day.
There, the principal explained to the students that schools were being closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gunter describes the feeling she had leaving the school, where she was one week into her six-week placement as part of her undergraduate degree, as “hollow.”
“Nobody liked the feeling of leaving the kids for that long and not knowing when we’re going to see them again,” Gunter, 21, told HuffPost Canada.
In her short placement, she had already bonded with her students, and is now worried about some of them not getting adequate breakfast at home without the school providing it.
Gunter also isn’t sure what the school closure, and consequential cancellation of her placement, means for her school year. She was set to graduate from Bishop’s University in Quebec in June with a bachelor of arts.
But she’s not sure if she’ll get credit for the week she spent at the internship. She needs six credits, or six weeks of being at placement, to graduate.
The sudden closure of colleges and universities, one of many measures undertaken to slow the spread of COVID-19, has brought uncertainty and anxiety to college and university students, especially those in their final years who require placement hours to graduate. Aspiring teachers have been doubly affected by the closures, with both their classes and out-of-school work like supply teaching cancelled.
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Schools in every Canadian province and territory have been cancelled until at least the end of March or beginning of April.
The British Columbia government last week suspended classes in its K-12 system indefinitely, just days after Alberta announced a similar measure. In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford has said schools will be closed longer than the previously announced three weeks.
Bishop’s University said its administration will work with students and the ministry of education and higher education “to see how pre-service teachers can complete the necessary contact hours in these courses.”
“The goal is to ensure that the students’ certification and graduation are not in jeopardy,” according to the university’s website.
Gunter had planned to teach English online this summer, but the job requires applicants to have a bachelor of arts to even apply. If schools reopen and she has to complete her placement hours in May or June, then she’ll be missing out on a paid job during the summer.
“It's already hard to get a job as a teacher.”
Her living situation is also complicated. She’s currently at her parents’ house in Brighton, Ont., but the lease for her Quebec apartment ends May 1. If the border between the two provinces were to shut, Gunter isn’t sure how she’d move out of her Quebec home. Her parents just got back from a vacation, so she’s currently quarantined at home and can’t leave to pack up early.
For Gunter, the sudden cancellation of her placement also meant she didn’t get to say goodbye to her school friends. While she’s doing an extra year of school to get her bachelor of education, many of her classmates are planning to graduate with just their bachelor of arts this year. She’s not sure whether their graduation ceremony will be cancelled or postponed.
“At a school like Bishop’s, it’s so small, and everyone’s such a close knit-family, that [we’re] relying on that opportunity to say goodbye,” she said.
Gunter is hoping to teach in Ontario after graduating. With the Ontario government looking to increase the number of students in e-learning courses, Gunter also worries about what will become of her job after the social distancing measures are lifted and schools reopen.
“Will this online learning become something that’s more relevant than it is now, and how is that going to affect my job? It’s already hard to get a job as a teacher,” she said.
Sydney Rauch, a fourth-year education student at the University of Alberta, learned on March 13 that her five classes were cancelled. At first it wasn’t clear how long the cancellation would last, but the university later clarified that it was indefinite. It also announced that classes, now taught online, would be pass/fail, as opposed to graded.
Rauch said that before the shutdown, her classes typically involved discussions and presentations by fellow students, with lots of opportunities to do collaborative activities and talk with peers. The switch from this interactive, hands-on learning to an online delivery has been a difficult adjustment, she said.
“It’s been pretty hard just to keep motivated to do my classes, as most of my professors just upload, like, a PowerPoint with a voiceover.”
André Costopoulos, vice-provost and dean of students at the University of Alberta, said the university is working hard to minimize the negative impact on students.
“It’s a big change for everyone,” Costopoulos told HuffPost Canada. He said the university has support in place to help instructors with the remote delivery of their courses. Supports for students — including resources for mental health, academic and tutoring and career services — are all available remotely, too.
Costopoulos also said helping students with the transition out of university during this time is one of the university’s priorities.
“It's a big change for everyone.”
Although Rauch has finished her practicum placements, she had continued to volunteer at the elementary school she worked at last semester. She missed her chance to say goodbye to the kids. “It was kind of a shock,” she said.
Rauch was hoping to work as a substitute teacher in May and June after finishing her classes, but now that schools in Alberta are closed indefinitely, she is unsure if she will be able to.
The other summer employment options she was looking into, like working at summer camps or other jobs working with children, are also up in the air.
Beyond the summer, there’s more uncertainty.
“We don’t know what it will be like in September, if this will be over [or] if schools will be ready to go,” Rauch said. “I’m quite concerned about that, too.”
Those at the start of their teacher education aren’t exempt from the challenges, either.
Mara Bowman is in her first year of teacher’s college at Western University in Ontario. She was set to start her dream placement after March Break — one month teaching music, which she studied in her undergraduate degree, for grades 6 to 8.
But now that schools are closed, her placement is cancelled.
“I was really disappointed because I had a placement that I was really looking forward to [that] was in my field of study and my interest,” Bowman said. “And now I don’t know if I’ll ever get a chance to actually do it.”
Western University’s latest COVID-19 update doesn’t mention student practicums or placements. However, it says the university’s community will continue to “collaborate and support each other” during these circumstances.
Bowman is not sure if she’ll have to repeat the placement to make up the credit during her next school year. Earlier in the year, her professors emphasized the importance of the placements, calling them more important than classes.
“To have that suspended, I’m thinking, ‘How will this reflect on myself as a teacher, my success and [the] development of my abilities and my capabilities?’”
In the meantime, she has nothing to do, school-wise, until her second year starts in September. She tutors, primarily voice lessons, but finds it harder to do over video calls.
Bowman is still hopeful her school will figure something out for her next placement, and understands why the current measures are critical to slow the spread of the virus.
“But in terms of my personal education, I feel like I’m not getting it at all — because I’m really not.”