Patti Bacchus: Government insists schools are still safe

    1 of 3 2 of 3

      "We know we can safely go to school."—Dr. Bonnie Henry, November 16 COVID-19 update.

      Some would beg to differ with the good doctor, especially on social media. I got many heated messages from teachers this week after Henry was asked in a CBC radio interview how teachers should protect themselves from COVID 19 and she replied that “teachers know best” and should ask their colleagues for advice.

      That was rich after Henry’s refused to mandate masks or smaller classes in schools and the B.C. Teachers’ Federation had to resort to a Labour Relations Board application just to get existing safety protocols enforced consistently.

      New York City schools closed today for in-class learning due to COVID-19, and four schools in the Fraser Health region are closed temporarily, yet Premier John Horgan insisted yesterday that “we have demonstrated we can operate our K-12 system safely”.

      Education Minister Rob Fleming said much the same thing to reporters this week as well, adding that government would try to keep schools open even in the event of an economic lock down, maintaining that the level of COVID-19 transmission is “incredibly low” in schools.

      Parents give schools plan good marks: poll

      Despite social-media noise to the contrary, an Insights West poll conducted from November 4 to 8 found “the vast majority of B.C. parents are pleased with the government’s response to the pandemic and regulating how children in B.C. have gone back to school”.

      Not surprisingly, the poll found parents divided on their preferences for in-person and remote instruction, with 32 percent preferring a hybrid of in-person and online learning (a drop from 41 percent in September) and 45 percent preferring in-person learning (up from 27 percent in September). Those saying they prefer all learning to be done remotely dropped from 27 percent in September to 19 percent in November.

      B.C. premier John Horgan

      That suggests that despite rising case numbers and multiple announced school “exposures” to COVID-19, parents are more confident it’s safe for their kids to be in school full-time than they were before school started in September. Bear in mind, however, this poll was conducted before news broke about a Surrey music teacher being hospitalized with COVID-19 and a sharp increase in daily case numbers in the Vancouver Coastal and Fraser Health regions.

      In his media briefing Wednesday (November 18), Horgan said “the evidence is clear that children are not transmitters of COVID-19” and that it’s adult employees who are bringing the virus into schools. I’m not convinced the science is settled on that, but it tells me how government is thinking and what it means in terms of whether schools stay open or not (my money’s on staying open).

      The poll also shows school districts’ challenges in designing learning models that satisfy all families, with a split between those who want full-time, a hybrid, and remote learning, given districts have limited staffing to allocate.

      As I noted last week, some Vancouver parents want their high-school kids back in class full-time (Vancouver has a unique model where high schools are only in person for all students part of the day and in classes of 15 or fewer), while others point to the Vancouver model as one other districts should emulate.

      I was skeptical about the return-to-school plan, but now that we’re over two months in, I’m relieved to hear that it seems to be working fairly well and that transmission appears to be relatively minimal (contrary to what I’m seeing on Twitter and Facebook groups), in comparison with other group settings.

      As we get to understand more about this virus, it’s looking more and more like schools are safer places for children and youth to be than having them out of school in less structured small gatherings or at home alone.

      I suspect in days to come we may see more temporary school closures, but those are more likely to be due to staffing shortages (as teachers and support workers are off either ill or self-isolating due to exposures) than due to in-school COVID-19 outbreaks.

      Communication is key and still needs improvement

      I’d give Henry a B for communications, but I’d like to see improvement and be able to give her an A. Much of the anxiety and distrust about schools comes from delays in notifying staff and parents about exposures and a lack of transparency about where cases are and who is spreading the virus to whom.

      As I’ve written before, parents have taken it into their own hands to share information through Facebook groups and by posting copies of school-exposure letters. They shouldn’t have to resort to that.

      B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry

      As we head into the darkest days of the year, with record-high case numbers, we need to be working together to fight the spread of the virus, and that requires trust, confidence, and cooperation.

      While the poll numbers indicate fairly strong public support for how the provincial government has handled back to school, a lot of people still disagree. This is a time we need to be all-in and to have confidence in those who are tasked with leading us through this crisis.

      Insights West president Steve Mossop notes that between 25 and 33 percent of parents are not happy with the school system currently, with rising COVID-19 cases and inconsistences in reporting school exposures and outbreaks.

      Improvements needed and possible

      The B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) is calling on Horgan to tell the Ministry of Education to reduce class sizes to a maximum of 15 in the Fraser Health Region, in response to the dramatic increases in infections. It’s a prudent and reasonable measure to enable physical distancing, and something that the Vancouver School Board managed to implement in its secondary schools since the beginning of the school year.

      On the other hand, if it really is adults who are spreading the virus in schools, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to have smaller class sizes, particularly for elementary kids.

      The BCTF was successful in its application to the B.C. Labour Relations Board to establish a process to expedite teachers’ concerns about schools not complying with safety guidelines, which should help ensure compliance. It’s unfortunate they had to do this: government and elected school boards should provide effective oversight, but they don’t.

      What next?

      I’m seeing calls for an extended winter break, with some suggesting adding time to the end of the school year to make up for lost instructional days. That could make sense if government can negotiate with education employee groups to agree to that.

      On the other hand, if kids are out of school, someone needs to look after the younger ones, and the older ones may gather whether they’re supposed to or not. The question is whether an extended winter break would make a difference or make the numbers worse. At the very least, a longer break would give exhausted and stressed school administrators, teachers, and support workers a chance to come up for air and get some much-needed rest.

      With a solid, fresh mandate, and increasing confidence from parents, I don’t see the Horgan government changing course on keeping schools open, unless things take a turn for the much, much worse. The BCTF continues to call for a mask mandate in schools and smaller classes, but Horgan’s statement that it's adults spreading the virus, and not kids, indicates that won’t be happening.

      In the meantime, let’s do our part to keep school employees and students safe by following the advice and directions of Dr. Henry and by taking all the steps we can to ensure we’re not catching or spreading the virus. The numbers and the weather may be bleak, but the vaccine news is hopeful. Hang in there. We’ll get through this if we work together.

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