Patti Bacchus: Growing opposition to B.C.’s June school reopening plan

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      It’s not often teachers praise Ontario Premier Doug Ford while slamming B.C.’s NDP government, but as we know, 2020 is a weird and awful year.

      Ford’s announcement earlier this week that Ontario’s schools will stay closed through to the end of the school year—and his statement, “One thing I will never do is take unnecessary risk when it comes to our children”—were met with enthusiastic praise by B.C. teachers on Twitter and Facebook.

      Since B.C. premier John Horgan and Education Minister Rob Fleming’s announcement just before the long weekend that our province’s schools would partially reopen to students on a voluntary, part-time basis on June 1, many teachers and parents have been balking at the potential risks of having kids back in class. Ford’s announcement this week was akin to tossing fuel on the fire.

      B.C. is not Ontario, of course, and our public health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, has done an excellent and effective job of responding to the pandemic. If Henry says it’s safe enough for a careful reopening of schools, I’ll take her word for it—if school districts have solid plans to follow her safety protocols.

      That’s easy for me to say, however, as I get to stay home and tweet and bake bread while teachers don’t get a choice about going back to working on-site after two months of redesigning their teaching plans for emergency remote learning.

      The back-to-school plan seems to conflict with Horgan’s comment yesterday, that employers shouldn’t be forcing employees to come to work if they’re not ready to do so. Teachers I’m hearing from don’t believe they have a choice, and many are already being directed to report to schools and stop working from home.

      That also means they don’t have a choice about whether or not to send their own kids back to school, unless they have someone available to care for them while they’re at work.

      For the most part, parents have the choice whether to send their kids back or not. I’m sure some will be happy to do so and will feel confident the benefits outweigh the risks, while others who aren’t so sure can continue to keep their kids home.

      Opposition to a partial return-to-school plan is growing. An online petition calling for a stop to the reopening of schools had surpassed 20,000 signatures when I checked on it Thursday (May 21) morning.

      B.C. education minister Rob Fleming.

      Education Minister Rob Fleming held a virtual town-hall meeting May 20 to answer questions and reassure parents that the government’s school reopening plan is safe. He and B.C. School Trustees Association president Stephanie Higginson were joined by Dr. Trevor Corneil, the chief medical health officer for the Interior Health Authority, to answer questions submitted by the public. It was well moderated by Delta North MLA Ravi Kahlon.

      I tuned in and didn’t get the sense it was successful. Many of the questions weren’t clearly answered, suggesting schools districts are still struggling to figure out their plans and who will do extra cleaning and how teachers will be able to teach in person while continuing to support students learning remotely.

      I posted one of my utterly unscientific Twitter polls last night, asking: “If you listened to tonight's #bced town hall with @Rob_Fleming @KahlonRav and @BCSTA_President do you feel more confident about schools partially re-opening in June?” By this morning (May 21), 608 people had voted, with only 12.3 percent saying, “Yes, it’s a good plan,” while 71.4 percent voted “No, I’m still worried,” and 16.3 percent voted for “Don’t know.”

      The June plan

      The good news is there are now clear protocols for school-district safety plans to prevent, or at least limit, the spread of COVID 19 on school sites.

      Most students from kindergarten to Grade 5 will have the option of going to school a couple of days a week. Don’t expect to pick those days, though. Districts will set the schedule, and it won’t be flexible.

      Students from grades six to 12 may have the choice to attend school one day a week or to come in for help if its needed. Schools should be contacting parents this week to ask if they plan to send their kids back part-time in June.

      That’s been tricky for parents who want more information about safety plans before they decide. School districts are working on plans now, and those plans may change, depending on how many students are expected back. It’s a frustrating conundrum, and school-district leaders need to be honest and open with parents about what they know and what they don’t know yet.

      Children of essential-service workers, including teachers, will have the option to attend school full-time, in most cases. It’s not clear, however, whether or not students will attend their home schools if their parents work in a different school district.

      Students with special needs who require more face-to-face support may also be able to attend school full-time, but that will be decided on a case-by-case basis. If in doubt, contact your school principal.

      Those who choose not to return can continue to learn remotely.

      If your kids are going back

      School districts will be required to clearly communicate safety protocols to staff and parents, although most don’t seem to be ready to do so yet. They will emphasize the importance keeping kids home if they show any symptoms of illness—but, oddly enough, it appears kids will be permitted to attend school if other family members have symptoms.

      Parents should be prepared to pack a water bottle for their kids, as drinking fountains won’t be in operation. They’ll be told where to drop their kids off and will be asked not to enter the school. Start times and dismissals may be staggered, so pay attention to those. Likewise, recess and lunch breaks will likely be staggered as well, to prevent larger groups from congregating.

      Students will be required to practise good hand hygiene, with lots of hand-washing and -sanitizing throughout the day. They should be reminded to cough or sneeze into their elbows or a tissue, and to not share food or other items with others.

      They may not be in class with their regular teachers and shouldn’t expect to see all their classmates if they go back.

      Let’s hope June brings good weather, as schools will increase outdoor time. Playgrounds that have been off limits since mid-March are now deemed to be safe for kids to play on while they’re at school, for reasons that aren’t clear to me.

      Masks are not recommended in schools, but anyone who chooses to wear one can, and that choice should be respected, according to the B.C. Ministry of Education’s COVID-19 health and safety guidelines for K-12 schools. B.C.’s Centre for Disease Control guidance cautions that masks can be irritating for young children, which may lead to increased touching of the face and eyes.

      Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam

      This advice appears to run somewhat contrary to the guidance coming from our nation’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, who said this week that people should wear masks when physical distancing isn’t always possible.

      Students’ desks or tables will be placed apart, or at least as much as they can be in classrooms. Students will be told to avoid gathering in groups while they’re in hallways or other common areas. They’ll be told not to share personal items, pens, pencils, or food with classmates and probably won’t be able to use their lockers.

      School districts will be expected to ramp up cleaning protocols, with frequent claning of high-contact surfaces like door handles, toilet seats, faucets, keyboards and desks. It’s still unclear if additional staffing will be provided to do this work, as school janitors already have heavy workloads.

      Higginson came under fire yesterday for suggesting that education assistants, whose job it is to support students, could be roving cleaners. She walked that one back quickly, but during the town hall she said staff could be “redeployed” to do extra cleaning. She didn’t say where they’d be redeployed from, but I’d sure like to know.

      Schools will be directed to provide paper hand towels instead of hand dryers, in addition to cleaning supplies for shared devices and materials.

      In the Vancouver school district, schools will provide 2020 grads with a prerecorded video presentation and a chance for grads to walk down an honourary grad hallway when they pick up their belongings and grad items in June. I imagine other districts are working on similar ways to celebrate their graduates.

      Fleming said during the town hall that the province is working on some kind of virtual graduation-recognition event featuring prominent British Columbians.

      Give it a chance

      As we slowly and carefully reopen B.C.’s economy, some of us will be more comfortable than others when it comes to expanding our bubbles or going to a restaurant.

      I’m in the cautious camp and will be holding off for now, but I’m confident that the advice and direction we’re getting from our provincial leaders and Dr. Henry, in particular, will keep us safe.

      I’m also sympathetic to the concerns I’m hearing from those who don’t get a choice in the matter, whether they’re teachers or other support staff who work in schools. I urge Fleming and school-district managers to ensure that those concerns are respectfully addressed and that those who are not comfortable coming back to classrooms aren’t forced to do so.

      Let’s hope that health-and-safety guidelines are followed and clearly communicated to all, that we can end this most unusual school year safely, and that we will be prepared for a more complete and safe return to school in September.

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