Canadian elementary school principals are responsible for the quality of a school’s instructional program as well as the management of the school, staff, students and families (People for Education, 2018). A survey released in July 2020 discovered that one of the top concerns of 94.5% of principals was the rising number of mental health issues among teachers, students, and parents (Pollock & Wang, 2020). When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March 2020, elementary principals suddenly found themselves responsible for the mental and physical health of staff, students, and families unlike any other time in their careers (Pollock, 2020). Research published in the spring 2021 edition of the Canadian Association of Principals’ CAP Journal suggested that principals have cause for concern thanks to the impact of Emergency Remote Teaching (ERT) or virtual school teaching assignments. Almost 95% of 190 elementary teachers in the spring sample (94.7%) reported that ERT via video conferencing platforms such as Google Meets, Microsoft Teams, WebEx, and Zoom significantly affected their emotional health and stress. Another 93.7% reported it caused a significant increase in their workload, 91.6% reported it significantly effected their physical health, and 81.6% said that it affected their relationships with partners and family members (Schroeter, 2021). Private teacher Facebook groups were full of comments to that effect in spring 2021.
With the highly transmissible Delta variant surging during the summer of 2021 and no vaccine available for children under age 12, some educators and medical experts were bracing for further Emergency Remote Teaching (Gewertz, 2021). Even if Canadian elementary teachers don’t have to pivot from in-person to online teaching, teach in virtual schools, or teach combined classes of virtual and in-person students, they will almost certainly face the elevated workload of enforcing masking and social distancing and the uncertainty of more school closures. This is concerning given the body of research linking heavy workload to mental health concerns (Zoer et al., 2011) and new evidence that suggests that people working more than 54 hours a week are at “major risk” of dying from overwork due to chronic stress and lifestyle changes such as less sleep, unhealthy eating, smoking, alcohol consumption, and minimal exercise (Frank Pega et al., 2021). Detailed information about the workload of emergency remote teaching may assist principals, school district leaders, teacher associations, and provincial governments to successfully manage potential teacher workload, stress, absenteeism and staffing shortages. A follow-up survey was developed to identify online teaching tasks that increased teacher workload and to what degree. This article reports on the findings of this follow-up survey.
Data Collection & Demographic Information
The small follow-up survey of elementary contract and Occasional (Substitute) Teachers (Kindergarten to Grade 8) was conducted a local chapter of the Elementary Teacher’s Federation of Ontario (ETFO) in eastern Ontario. Links to the survey were posted in May 2021 on the local teachers’ association private Facebook group. Most of the data was collected using checkbox or 5-point Likert scale questions. Two open response write-in questions were analyzed and coded.
The sample was composed of 97 in-person teachers who taught online in the spring of 2021 for 10 weeks and eight teachers who taught in a virtual school all year. Of the 105 participants, most (89.7%) were full-time contract teachers, 2.1% were part-time contract teachers, and 8.2% were Occasional Teachers without group benefits such as dental care and paid sick days. The majority (96.9%) were women and 3.1% were male. The participants’ grade assignments were relatively evenly distributed from kindergarten to Grade 8, among teacher age groups and across years of teaching experience. Numerous combined grade teachers participated (17.5%). The small sample size represents approximately 5.0% of the total population in the study. Consequently, the margin of error of the results is almost 19 percentage points (+/- 9.4%) with a confidence level of 95.0%. They must therefore be interpreted cautiously.
Overall, results suggest that ERT or teaching in a virtual school increases 78.7% of elementary teachers’ workload by 5 to 20 hours weekly in overtime above and beyond the extra hours that they typically would work in a non-pandemic year. Teachers estimated working an average of 30.21 extra hours per week of “overtime” in addition to their typical “homework.” The most frequently repeating estimate (the mode) was 19 extra hours of work weekly, effectively creating a 59-hour work week for the teachers and increasing their workload by 50%. The results were generated by asking participants to estimate how many extra hours of work per week on average after the end of the workday and on weekends were generated by each of the following seven tasks specific to online teaching:
- evaluating student achievement (marking and report card writing): 7.0 mean hours,
- assessing student learning for program planning and differentiation: 4.22,
- providing students with feedback on their answers and work: 3.59,
- communicating with parents and/or students e.g., scheduling, providing information, follow-up, answer questions, reminding: 2.59,
- tracking, contacting, engaging and following up with parents whose children are not participating in any form of distance learning: 2.56,
- creating separate work for students who cannot participate online and giving instructions to families: 2.0, and,
- a suite of five tasks including learning new technology and teaching methods, developing content, adjusting online teaching methods, problem solving technological problems; and, making up for lost teaching time due to internet and technology failures: 8.25 hours.
Teachers were also asked to evaluate eight aspects of working online that might have contributed to an expanded workload during online teaching. More than three quarters of survey participants agreed or strongly agreed that seven tasks were responsible for their increased ERT workload: assessment of student learning for program planning (92.8%), evaluation of student progress for report card development (89.7%), providing students with timely feedback on their answers and work to enable them to improve (88.6%); tracking, contacting, engaging and following up with parents whose children are not participating in any form of distance learning (86.6%); problem solving and providing technical support for parents and students (80.4%); the Ontario Ministry of Education’s Policy/Program Memorandum 164 (PPM 164, August 2020), which governs synchronous and asynchronous online learning and requires Ontario teachers and students in Grades 1 to 8 to spend 225 minutes a day (180 minutes in kindergarten) online (77.3%); and making special work and arrangements for students who cannot participate online (75.2%).
Ninety-nine (99) of the 105 participants added their own comments to the open response questions of the survey. Several significant themes emerged when the responses were coded. All 99 (94.29%) described themselves as or agreed with the statement that they were either “burned out,” overwhelmed, stressed, pressured, fatigued, exhausted, or suffering from mental health issue or a specific condition such as depression. Slightly more than two thirds (69.52%) of those surveyed reported an increased workload, sometimes using strong, emotional language. Approximately one third (36) of the teachers (34.29%) strongly urged modifications to Ontario’s PPM 164 and how synchronous online learning was being implemented in the province. They cited numerous flaws in ERT, such as its inferior instructional quality, the negative impact of too much time spent online on students and teachers, technical complications and limitations, its inability to include all students, and its significant contribution to teacher workload to name just a few. Moreover, on another part of the questionnaire 77.3% of the teachers surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that PPM 164 contributed to their increased workload. Despite teacher concerns about the regulation, it is noteworthy that 82.86% of the teachers also felt obligated to follow its protocols. When asked to describe the total number of hours spent online synchronously with their students, 91.43% of them reported following or exceeding the standard set out in PPM 164 even thought it seems to be the focal point for increased workload. By forcing Ontario teachers to spend all but 75 minutes of their 300-minute instructional day online it limited the type of work teachers could do during the work week. For example, 37 or one third of the participants (35.24%) reported that locating, creating, or converting digital teaching resources was extremely time-consuming. A few of the 105 respondents (11.43%) reported that they had to spend their own money to purchase teaching materials or technology to overcome the challenge.
One fifth or 27 of the teachers (25.71%) described the challenge of working and homeschooling their own children and/or feeling torn between their needs of their own children and their students. No provision was made for them. Other themes included feelings of social and professional isolation during ERT (13.33%), head, neck, and back pain or eye strain or feeling unhealthy due to sitting for so long every day (19.05%). On another part of the survey, 77.8% of the teachers agreed that they were unable to routinely take their full daily 40-minute lunch break and allotted 20-minute break during ERT, 69.1% indicated it sometimes prevented them from taking contractually provided planning time, and 65.6% agreed there was no time at any point during their waking hours for regular physical exercise and recreation. Four teachers in the sample wrote five positive comments about ERT (4.76%).
Some methods of reducing excessive teacher workload such as modifying the process of synchronous online learning emerged from the write-in comment section. However, survey participants were also presented with potential solutions to decrease remote teaching workload in the future. Two thirds to three quarters agreed or strongly agreed that following five supports would help in this endeavour:
- thorough training and professional development on a grade-appropriate online instructional methods (77.4%),
- well designed, grade-appropriate course content (62.9%),
- specialized training on creating and delivering online learning content (62.9%%),
- reliable and stable internet for effective delivery of online learning (75.3%), and,
- a grade-appropriate integrated learning management system such as Blackboard Learn or Brightspace (75.3%).
These suggestions echo some of the recommendations found in research published in the Spring 2021 edition of the CAP Journal, although teachers more frequently recommended eliminating or reducing teacher duties such attendance, contacting students who were not participating, report card writing, standardization of devices, apps and platforms, and increased support for struggling students. (Schroeter, 2021). In contrast, the major concerns of the participants in the current sample focused on immediate needs: access to more powerful online tools, technical training, professional development in online teaching methods, a robust online instructional system, access to high quality internet, and well designed, age-appropriate content. It is noteworthy that many of these ideas were proposed online at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year along with descriptions and analyses of more than a half dozen pandemic teaching models on August 31, 2020 (Dorn, Panier, Probst, & Sarakatsannis), suggesting that teachers underwent needless hardship.
In Ontario, emergency remote and virtual school online instruction seems to have imposed an excessive pandemic workload, most often reported as 19 hours extra per week, on elementary school teachers. This may be the case in other provinces. If the findings from this study accurately represent the impact of ERT and virtual school teaching on just a fraction of Canada’s 250,000 elementary teachers, then potential significant health, working conditions, and human resource issues have been identified. Given concerns about the impact of the Delta variant of COVID-19 on children, a lack of a vaccine for most elementary students, and the risk of a fourth wave in the fall of 2021, there is a possibility of further ERT in the future. It may therefore be time to adopt legislation such as the European Union’s Working Time Directive, which bars employees from working more than 48 hours per week on average (Ro, 2021). With a growing national teacher shortage and some school districts facing “significant recruitment challenges,” this human resource issue is one that principals, school districts and provincial health care systems can ill afford to ignore (Wilson, 2021). Once fair labour standards are re-established for elementary teachers and principals, provincial education authorities will be in a better position to determine how best to proceed during any future periods of emergency remote teaching. This might include carefully elaborating the details of remote teaching or dispensing with it altogether in favour of drastic class size reductions. The reductions could be accomplished by providing in-person learning to half-sized classes on alternate days.
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Edward Schroeter, B.J., B.Ed., OCT, ETFO, is a former newspaper reporter and retired elementary school teacher with 30 years experience. His education research has been published in the CAP Journal, the Ontario Mathematics Gazette, and Education Canada Magazine. He was the Grade 1 Lead Writer for the Ontario Mathematics Curriculum Resource Project (2020-21).