Patti Bacchus: Battle brewing over VSB high school class time

    1 of 7 2 of 7

      The debate over how much class time Vancouver high school students are getting is heating up, with pressure from the Ministry of Education, NDP and Liberal MLAs, and parents to bring the Vancouver School Board (VSB) high school schedule in line with other districts, which are mostly back in class full-time.

      Feeling the heat from the B.C. Liberals and parents who have been flooding their offices with phone calls, Vancouver’s NDP MLAs are getting in on the action with an online forum set for Wednesday (March 10) called “Inequity in Instruction Forum for Vancouver High School Families & Students”. featuring NDP MLAs, Ministry of Education staff, and “invited trustees”.

      That will put pressure on the VSB while ignoring the complexity of making major scheduling changes at this point in the year in a risky attempt to score political points with parents and ignoring the fact that their own Rob Fleming was the education minister who signed off on the VSB’s plan last fall.

      (I say risky because they’re handing the public an ideal opportunity to give them an earful about education funding, the terrible process for getting schools seismically upgraded, the need for more schools so families don’t have to enter lotteries to get kids into kindergarten, better support for students with special needs, inadequate funding for school maintenance, the need for a stronger mask mandate in schools, and so on, which they don’t actually want to hear about.)

      That ministry-approved plan has students attend class for about 105 minutes a day, in classes of 15 or fewer, and work remotely and mostly unsupervised the rest of the day. It was praised by many, including me, for finding a creative way to ensure students have a reasonable choice of courses and electives while maintaining strong COVID-19 safety protocols.

      If you recall last summer—which seems both 10 years and 10 days ago—the government announced that schools would go back full time, with a goal to maximize in-class instruction and with students organized into cohorts of up to 60 pupils in elementary and 120 in secondary schools. The plan allowed exceptions for districts with large high schools, where keeping students in cohorts would be especially challenging, saying they “may need to offer a hybrid approach with a blend of remote and self-directed learning”.

      That’s what the VSB did, which enabled greater physical distancing and reduced learning-group sizes. It also enabled students to get up, get dressed, and go to school each day and see teachers and other students, albeit for a shortened day, with the option to stay at school during what they call “flex time”. It struck me as a careful and creative compromise and a potential model for other districts.

      Martin Dunphy

      As the school year progressed and health officials said there was little to no COVID-19 transmission in schools, some parents began raising concerns about VSB high school students having so much unsupervised time during the day and the lack of connection with teachers during remote-learning time (teachers are also teaching in-person classes during the day). This, some said, is particularly problematic for younger students in grades eight and nine, and may put more senior students at a disadvantage when it comes to competing for postsecondary scholarships and university admissions.

      The parents calling for a return to full class time have been making a compelling case: all other public B.C. school districts provide more in-class instruction than Vancouver. They say Vancouver students are being shortchanged and not provided with the hours of instruction required under the B.C. School Act. They say the mental health risks of spending so much time at home and out of class may outweigh the COVID-19 risks.

      A parent survey conducted by the Vancouver District Parent Advisory Council (DPAC) showed a strong majority of parents want more secondary class time and that most remote learning was simply assigned homework, with no actual instruction.

      Parents calling out other parents for their privilege

      The parents who’ve been petitioning for a return to full-time instruction have been criticized by others, including a DPAC executive member (speaking/tweeting for herself, not the parent group), for being “white, upper-middle class, well housed and likely having extended benefits”.

      That may be a reference to the fact that some of the speakers at VSB committee meetings arguing for a return to full-time class include doctors, infectious-disease experts, and lawyers, but the reality is that research indicates it is students from lower-income families that may suffer the most negative consequences of being out of school.

      Templeton Secondary School
      Wikimedia Commons/Arnold C.

      That exchange was unfortunate, given how hard DPAC parent volunteers work to fairly represent the wide range of views held by parents across the city, and how well they do that. In my experience, parents with privilege are overrepresented when it comes to advocacy, likely because they have the time, skills, and confidence to do so in a system that can be less than welcoming and accessible (see this column). That’s not entirely a bad thing: many advocate for better funding and services for all students who need it, not just their own, and I don’t believe anyone should be criticized for advocating for their kids to get the best experience possible in public schools. I know DPAC volunteers put in great effort to support all parents in being able to advocate and be heard by the VSB.

      It’s also unfortunate to see the Ministry of Education and NDP MLAs who supported the VSB’s plan at the start of the school year pressuring it to change it this late in the school year—which is a lot easier said than done in such a large and complex district. It’s also especially lousy timing given the detection of new, more infectious COVID-19 variants and hundreds of new COVID-19 cases being identified daily in B.C.

      Let’s remember who the enemy is: the virus, not each other

      The virus has done enough harm, and we don’t need parents turning on other parents or the government turning on the VSB. It’s fine to make the (strong) case for more class time or the (equally strong) case to stay with the current schedule without going after parents’ professions, neighbourhoods, or race. Focus on the argument, not on who is making it.

      Ideally, school districts could provide a choice, with those who prefer to stick with the current schedule being able to do so and those wanting full-time classes having that option. The reality, however, is less than ideal, and there simply isn’t the flexibility or funding in the system to be able to provide that.

      In mid-February, Scott MacDonald, B.C.’s deputy education minister, wrote to VSB superintendent Suzanne Hoffman “recommending” a “re-alignment” of its secondary plan with an “objective to maximize in-class and on line learning with teacher supervision” and that work on that “occur immediately”, with a plan by February 26.

      VSB superintendent Suzanne Hoffman

      Well well. The VSB trustees were not having it and thumbed their collective nose at the deputy minister with a unanimous February 22 vote to stick with the model they have while managers review student progress data from the second quarter of the year.

      That doesn’t rule out further changes, however. Hoffman, who has a difficult job that she does with tremendous grace and diplomacy, told me by email this week that management is considering several factors—including health and safety requirements, impact on students, COVID-19 cases, scheduling, staffing, and stakeholder feedback—before making decisions about changing the schedule.

      The board’s vote to stick with the schedule was a disappointment to parents who were hoping to see immediate changes but instead got a lesson in the complicated cogovernance relationship between school boards and the Ministry of Education. It was a relief to others, who are nervous about the virus and the new, more infectious variants that are showing up in our communities and who like the schedule as is.

      I respect the VSB’s decision to support its professional staff in making decisions based on careful consideration of evidence and consultation with all affected, instead of caving in to the loudest voices and the deputy minister and political pressure from opportunistic MLAs.

      It’s hard to please everyone in a large and complicated school district at the best of times, and these are anything but. Let’s hope we’re nearing the end of the damndemic and we can all go back to arguing about whatever we argued about in the Before Times—if we could remember what that was.

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