Patti Bacchus: Is it safe to go back to school?

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      I usually wait until September to write my first column of the new school year, and spend the last week of August kayaking and hiking, and staying away from my keyboard. But with all heck breaking loose over B.C.’s back-to-school plans, here I am. Where to start?

      My inboxes are overflowing with messages from parents, students, teachers, and support workers trying to figure out if it’s safe to head back to class in September and what to do if they don’t feel confident enough to go. They’re seeing their school district’s plans this week, for the first time, and while some seem better than others, they all carry risks that may be too much for many.

      The heck began building in late July, when Education Minister Rob Fleming released B.C.’s “Education Restart Plan,” that called for all K-12 students to return to class full-time, in mask-optional “learning groups” of up to 60 students for elementary kids and 120 for high schools.

      The provincial plan says physical distancing isn’t required within learning groups, which sounds like another term for bubble. This appears to contradict what we’ve been told about keeping our bubbles small and wearing masks when physical distancing can’t be maintained.

      Reaction was swift, and it was fierce, and it hasn’t let up. Things didn’t get much better with Fleming’s public update yesterday. It pretty much boiled down to “ask your school district,” which is where he tossed the heavy lifting when it comes to figuring out how to implement the government guidelines, and especially to find a way for students to learn remotely without losing their spots in their usual schools and programs.

      The B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) distanced itself from the July 29 plan and advocated for changes to give teachers more time in September to prepare for students to return to class, given the new procedures and protocols that will need to be developed and implemented, and for smaller class sizes, among other asks.

      The province blinked a few weeks ago and agreed to push students’ start date to September 10 instead of September 8, which still seems like far too little time to organize classes and timetables, and ensure safety procedures are in place.

      The presidents of both the B.C. School Trustees Association (BCSTA) and B.C. Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils (BCCPAC) came under fire in early August for signing on to a joint validator letter in support of government’s July 29 plan, along with the heads of the B.C. School Superintendents’ Association, the B.C. Principals’ and Vice-Principals’ Association, and the B.C. Association of School Business Officials.

      The problem is they didn’t consult the members they speak for. And many BCSTA and BCCPAC members oppose the government plan, especially it’s all-or-nothing approach that doesn’t provide a remote-learning option that keeps students connected with their local schools.

      Most B.C. parents don’t know they’re represented by BCCPAC, which is a structural and governance challenge given how diverse parents’ opinions are across B.C. It’s somewhat of a thankless task for the volunteers active in the organization’s leadership, as few pay attention to it until it does something like endorse a controversial government plan without actually asking those it represents if they agree.

      I chalk the unfortunate decision to sign the letter as well-meaning naivety on the part of those hard-working volunteer parents who are trying to stay on government’s good side so they can stay at the table and continue to provide feedback. I don’t know what the BCSTA leadership’s excuse is, however.

      Some trustees told me they weren’t happy to see the head of their provincial organization out defending the plan and signing the letter, especially given how little funding it comes with and how hard it will be to keep kids safe in crowded, poorly ventilated schools with classes of up to 30 students.

      Both the BCTSA and BCCPAC presidents were notably absent from Fleming’s update yesterday. Smart.

      And then there was the August 20 release of the B.C. Ombudsperson’s damning report about the Ministry of Education’s disastrous and dishonest handling of 2019 provincial exam marks, saying the ministry has to apologize to students and compensate any who were “financially harmed by the issuance of incorrect provincial exam results”. Ouch. 

      I can’t overemphasize how devastating the report is—go here to read it yourself. Note how ministry officials and their minister continued to mislead students, parents, and the public, even after they knew about the major errors in the high-stakes exam marks.

      At a time many, including me, are questioning if Fleming is up to the job of leading his ministry, the Ombudsperson’s report was a major body blow to his credibility and his ministry’s. 

      The welcome bit of good, unexpected news came in the form of the federal government’s announcement of $2 billion “Safe Return to Class Fund” this week, with $242 million for B.C. schools. That’s enough to set up remote learning hubs with additional teachers that would enable students to stay enrolled in their local schools while they continue to learn from home, until they feel it’s safe enough to return to class.

      A stressful summer

      Which is all to say this damn virus is stressing a lot of people out. Increases in new cases have folks on edge, and are putting a lot of pressure for those in leadership roles to get this right, when no one really knows or agrees on what right looks like, or how to pay for it.

      I wake up every day grateful that I don’t have to figure out solutions or vote on decisions anymore, and I don’t envy those who do. School boards have, for the most part, been struggling to figure out where they fit into the back-to-school planning, as government sets the higher-level plan and then passes it over the school districts to implement.

      That’s mostly an operational matter for superintendents and their teams to work out, leaving the elected boards in an advocacy role to push government harder to give them the funding and flexibility they need to make the plans work safely. 

      Speaking of stress, imagine you’re one of the many parents, teachers or school support workers who are at high risk of serious complications from COVID-19, or live with family members who are. Accommodations to work or learn from home are limited in the government’s plan, although several school districts appear to be coming up with partial return plans for secondary students, despite government’s calls for everyone to go back full time, with only a few exceptions. 

      The message on masks has shifted too, since the July 29 plan went out, and they’ll be required more than originally announced, which is a positive move.

      Education Minister Rob Fleming has faced tremendous blowback from parents and teachers who feel there aren't enough measures in place to keep schools safe.

      How to improve the plan

      As I wrote last spring, I’d hoped government would take a proactive approach to ensure a safe return to class next month. That should have included renting shelters (large, event tents that are usually used for weddings and other large gatherings) to enable more outdoor learning in bigger spaces.

      That's in addition to identifying and leasing larger facilities that aren’t being used due to COIVD-19, like community centres, postsecondary facilities, and other spaces to allow students to spread out instead of being crowded into poorly ventilated classrooms.

      There should have been a hiring blitz to ensure that a good supply of teachers and support workers are available and to allow classes to be smaller and adequate on-call staff to be available. There’s still time to do that.

      Those employees should be assigned to single learning groups to avoid the transmission problems B.C. experienced in the long-term care sector in the early days of the pandemic due to care staff working at multiple sites. Fleming said yesterday that substitute teachers who work on-call should just try to physically distance, which is unrealistic in many classrooms. That’s not good enough.

      Work should have been done to determine how many teachers and families prefer to teach or learn remotely. Staff should have been assigned to set up remote hubs in local schools, or perhaps clusters of schools, so students could stay enrolled in their usual schools but learn from home in the meantime, or until they feel safe returning to class. That would have allowed a natural reduction in kids learning on site, enabling greater physical distancing—a key layer of protection from the virus.

      This would be especially true if school districts maintain staffing levels on-site, and add more teachers to support remote learners. Given how many were laid off at the end of June due to a drop in international student enrollment, there may be enough out there looking for work. The federal funds announced this week should be used to support this option.

      Summer would have been a great time to upgrade school ventilation systems and ensure classrooms have windows that open and access to high-quality air purification units.

      Alas, little-to-none of that’s been done and precious planning time’s been lost, which is on government and Fleming, but it’s still possible to make the plan safer.

      While everyone agrees a lot of kids need to go back to class for their well-being (for others, being out of school may be a mental health boon), it doesn’t mean everyone has to go back full-time, as the government’s education restart plan expects. You could cut class sizes in half by sending kids back half time, either in half day shifts or fewer days a week, as a few districts are trying to figure a way to do. Good on them.

      It’s not a perfect option, but if it’s social connections and access to adults at school that’s a priority, they’d still get that benefit, but in a lower-density, safer environment. Students with needs that indicate they’d be best off attending school full-time could continue to do so, just as they were supposed to be able to in June. 

      Improvements to school mask policy, which as of August 17 says that middle and high school kids need to wear them in places like hallways and buses, but not in classrooms (that are often crowded and poorly ventilated), could help as well, in terms of reducing transmission in classrooms if they’re made mandatory.

      Government should get busy on bulk orders of air purifiers, if they don’t spend all their federal funding on hiring more teachers to support remote learning, that is (which they should). Some classes may be able to be held outdoors in the fall, but when the cold and rainy season sets in that won’t be so easy. Anything that can be done to improve indoor air quality should be considered, sooner rather than later.

      Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst

      Is it safe to go back to school? I’m not convinced it is. I wouldn’t be comfortable working in a public school right now, or sending my kids to one. Risk tolerance for catching COVID-19 varies, and I don’t want to get it. Period. The plans seem to assume there will be some spread and that may be okay for some people, but it’s not a risk I’m willing to take for my family at this point of the pandemic.

      We need to see smaller classes, an assurance of physical distancing in classrooms, better ventilation, and remote learning and teaching options for anyone who prefers that. I’ll have my fingers crossed no COVID-19 outbreaks occur in schools, but we need to prepare for that possibility and be ready to shift back to more remote learning if things get bad. Good luck everyone. Stay safe.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.