‘Fed up and angry’: UBC teaching students concerned about safety of practicums

UBC teaching students are worried that they are putting themselves at unnecessary risk for contracting COVID-19 during their mandatory school visits.

As part of the bachelor of education (BEd) program, teaching students are placed in a BC school for a two week practicum in the fall, followed by weekly visits for the rest of the term.

In November, the Education Students Association (ESA) sent a petition to UBC’s Teacher Education Office (TEO) on behalf of more than one hundred Faculty of Education teaching students, requesting to make weekly practicums in BC schools optional. The ESA declined The Ubyssey’s request for an interview.

Students were concerned about their own health — as some of them are immunocompromised — and the risk that in-school placements posed to the elderly family members that some of them live with.

In response to the petition, Dr. Marianne McTavish, the associate dean of teacher education, said that the faculty was aware that some students suffered from extenuating circumstances. McTavish wrote that the practicum coordinators could work with the students on a case-by-case basis, but the faculty could not make the school visits optional as they were a requirement for the students to become certified teachers.

According to the BC Teachers’ Council, applicants must successfully complete an “acceptable practicum” that lasts 10 to 12 weeks. This requirement has not been modified or changed on the BC government website due to the pandemic.

“UBC’s BEd program is not approved for online practicum at this time as schools currently remain open,” McTavish wrote.

A continuing problem

Two months later, teaching candidates are still unhappy with their situation.

According to Anthony, a student in the secondary school english cohort, last term was “tough for all of us.” His name has been changed because he feared he may not get hired in BC schools after he graduates if he speaks publicly on this.

“None of us were given the choice to stay home. The problem with that is a lot of us have at-risk people living with us. Some of us are living with our parents,” he said.

“You have to consider culturally, as you have South Asian students who live with large families, particularly grandparents. There’s an added risk of bringing home a potential COVID infection into your home [where it] can infect multiple people. There’s a way to prevent that.”

Currently, while students in BC schools must wear masks in “high traffic areas” like buses and hallways, they are not required to wear them in the classroom.

Anna, a teaching student also in the secondary school english cohort, expressed concerns about students’ behaviour in schools. Her name has been changed as she did not want speaking out to affect her job prospects after she graduates.

“I’m legally not allowed to tell kids that they have to put their masks on,” she said. “Truthfully, I don’t know why we can let kids walk into schools without wearing masks, or why we can let them take them off in school even though there is a mask mandate inside.”

Kids also don’t physically distance, Anna said.

“There really is no reason why two people sitting next to each other should be allowed to take off their masks,” she said.

Teaching students are not the only ones worried about in-class learning. More than 60,000 people signed a petition that called for an extension of BC school’s winter break.

However, data released in January by Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) showed a low transmission in schools. VCH said that most students diagnosed with COVID-19 contracted the virus from settings outside of school.

Nevertheless, teaching students The Ubyssey spoke to said that a lot of their cohort is getting “fed up” and feels unheard by the university.

“It’s just frustrating that they aren’t being more understanding. I understand that it’s challenging for them, but if it’s challenging for them, think of how challenging it is for us,” Anna said.

Plea for more accommodation

When asked to comment on the students’ concerns, the TEO said they are “aware of the concerns raised by teacher candidates.”

“We empathize with the challenges they are facing in this very difficult time. Our number one priority is to ensure our teacher candidates are supported and safe. We strive to provide transparent and consistent communication in a timely manner based on the latest guidelines provided by authorities,” McTavish’s office wrote.

“We encourage teacher candidates to contact us directly to discuss any concerns they may have and will continue to work with them to support their needs.”

Moving forward, Anna would like to see the TEO be more accommodating of students who have an increased likelihood of contracting COVID-19.

Anna also requested that the TEO “work on their communication skills” and be more transparent with the students about the program in general. Anthony wants teaching candidates to be more involved in the decision-making process.

The BEd students voiced sentiments of resilience and unity among themselves.

“We don’t rely as much on the TEO as each other ... Our peers in our cohorts are helping each other out as much as possible,” Anthony said.