Patti Bacchus: A nervous new year for B.C. schools

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      I’m scared of COVID-19. I don’t want to get it, and I don’t want any of my loved ones getting it either. Nor do I want you or your loved ones to get it. Too many people are already grieving for those who have died from it, while others are coping with its long-term effects.

      At the beginning of the pandemic, one of our kids had just moved to Australia for a year and signed a lease on an apartment and lined up a job at a hotel. So much for that. When the prime minister summoned Canadians home last March, we told the (adult) kid he could quarantine at our home in Vancouver while we went to our place in the Gulf Islands. We stocked the fridge and freezer for him and boarded a ferry just as his plane was landing in Richmond.

      We thought we’d stay on the island for a couple of weeks—long enough for the kid to quarantine and get the all clear for it to be safe for us to go home. Then everything started closing down and we considered our risk factors and decided the best thing to do was stay put. We’ve spent most of the pandemic here, aside from a few essential trips to the city for medical and dental appointments and a couple of vehicle-servicing appointments that couldn’t be put off any longer.

      We feel safe and lucky to be on this quiet little island. We see few people, aside from neighbours on the road while we’re out for walks. Other than quick trips in and out of the local grocery and hardware stores and post office, and occasionally to pick up food from one of the island’s three restaurants, I haven’t been indoors with anyone except my husband in months.

      We had our kids and a few friends over for physically distanced visits in the summer and early fall, but we stopped when tightened heath orders came out in early November. We celebrated Christmas over FaceTime and we look forward to the day we can safely see our kids in person again.

      After spending the pandemic in this splendid isolation, I can’t get my head around what it would be like to spend six hours a day in a crowded high school, like Surrey’s Earl Marriott secondary, where there were an alarming 50 cases of COVID-19 linked to five classes before school let out for winter break.

      Honestly, I’d be scared spitless going into any school where there were recent exposures, or even going into schools with hundreds of students and staff, with shared washrooms and crowded hallways and classrooms and no in-class mask mandate. Never mind the more transmissible variant of the virus that may be circulating in our communities.

      I empathize with those who filled my inboxes last weekend with anxious messages about going back to school. The messages weren’t just from teachers but also from frustrated school administrators who wished they could do more to support and protect their staff, and parents and students who didn’t know whether or not it was safe to go back to class.

      Our provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, has consistently maintained that very little transmission occurs in schools and that the benefits of keeping them open outweigh the risks of COVID-19 transmission.

      B.C. provincial health officer Dr Bonnie Henry.

      That may be true on a macro level, but to those being directed to report to work at schools with multiple exposures, it’s cold comfort at best, and probably no comfort at all.

      Despite my respect for the good doctor and her expertise at managing pandemics, I can tell you I wouldn’t spend a day in Earl Marriott or any large school for all the wine in the Okanagan (and I’m a Bacchus). If my kids were still in school and we lived in a district with high levels of infections, I’d be keeping them home right now if I could.

      Unless, like for many parents, that wasn’t a viable option because I had to go to work myself or my kids were suffering mentally from a lack of socialization and needed the supports provided at school.

      Students with special needs getting screwed even more than at the pandemic's start

      The school situation is even more dire for parents of students who are medically compromised due to illness or disability.

      Former Vancouver broadcaster Tamara Taggart tweeted Monday that she was too scared to send her son, who has Down syndrome, to school this week (people with Down syndrome are at higher risk of poor outcomes, including death, from COVID-19). Taggart also decried a lack of attention to disabled students’ safety and “no transparency regarding #COVID19 in schools", causing parents and education workers to experience constant fear and anxiety.

      Taggart’s tweet echoes what I’ve been hearing since the pandemic began from many parents of students with various special needs who say their kids’ needs and rights to safe access to education are being neglected. When they do go to school, they often find their special education resource teachers have been redeployed to fill in for classroom teacher absences due to a shortage of on-call teachers, leaving them without the support they require.

      When schools closed last spring, students with special needs were supposed to be offered full-time, in-person instruction and support, but most districts didn’t let parents know that, and some didn’t provide that option, even when asked for it. Now many parents are wondering if it’s worth the risk to send their kids to school if the right support isn’t there.

      The pandemic has laid bare how poorly we treat the most vulnerable among us. Frail seniors have been woefully unprotected from the virus and left to die in care homes, isolated from loved ones. Others who have been lucky enough not to get infected can’t see their family members at a stage in life when that’s pretty much all there is left to live for. The medically vulnerable and the disabled have been similarly left to fend for themselves, with inadequate support and resources.

      Raising a child with a disability or chronic illness is tough at the best of times. Parents shouldn’t have to constantly fight for the support their kids need to access the education to which they are entitled, as well as for their safety. Soon we will have been at this pandemic thing for a year, and those families are still getting screwed, even more than they were before.

      Parents' and teachers' reasonable requests to make schools safer seem to fall on deaf ears. Why?

      I got my hopes up (when will I learn not to do this?) with reports last weekend that Dr. Henry said there was a task force working on plans for a safe return to class after the winter break, until it turned out there was no task force or revised plan—despite more than 66,000 signatures on a petition calling for a two-week delay in returning to class and for a new plan for safe schools that would take into consideration the arrival of the new, more infectious variant of the deadly virus.

      I’m disappointed with how little has changed in the schools’ plan, given how much we’ve learned about COVID-19 since its arrival early in 2020.

      The old plan may be fine in areas where infection rates are fairly low, but it just doesn’t cut it in districts like Surrey.

      I’m worried about our education workers, including administrators, teachers, support workers, school office staff, custodians, and everyone else who works in schools. Many were already worn down by years of being kicked around by the B.C. Liberals, and now many feel forsaken by the NDP government. It’s already tough to find good administrators, and we have a shortage of teachers and education assistants. What they’re going through now may burn out many, to the point they leave the sector. We can’t afford to lose them.

      So much more could be done, not only to make schools safer but to alleviate the anxiety of those who have to work in them or trust their kids’—and, by extension, their families’—safety to what seems like tissue-thin layers of protection in schools.

      B.C. education minister Jennifer Whiteside.

      B.C. has a new education minister, Jennifer Whiteside. There’s nothing like having to hit the ground running, and I don’t envy her having to step into the notoriously difficult role. I can’t help but wonder if she drew the short straw when Horgan was sorting out his new cabinet. The pressure is on her, but she’ll need cabinet’s support to make any real improvements. I hope she gets it.

      Whiteside deserves something for agreeing to take on such a tough ministry, and students and school employees need something to keep them going through the rest of this difficult school year. Support to enable smaller class sizes in high-infection regions and a mask mandate for classrooms would be a good start.

      Making sure those who work in schools get priority access to the vaccine would also demonstrate government’s respect for these frontline workers who put themselves at risk each day they report to work.

      I wish everyone well as we start this new and nervous year.

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