Patti Bacchus: If schools are essential, treat them that way

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      While Dr. Bonnie Henry is cracking down on COVID-19 rules due to surging cases in the Metro Vancouver area, a growing group of parents calling themselves Citizens for Equitable Education are asking the Vancouver School Board (VSB) to return to full-time instruction in high schools.

      Unlike the majority of B.C. school districts, which returned to full-time, in-class instruction for all students in September, the VSB provides only a 105-minute morning session of in-class, in-person instruction. The remainder of the day is either “flex time” or remote learning, which the parent group says is “almost entirely homework” with little instruction.

      The parents say their children are only getting a third of the instructional time required by the B.C. School Act and are at risk academically and may be at a competitive disadvantage—when it comes to postsecondary admissions—with students from private schools and public schools in jurisdictions where they are getting full-time instruction.

      They’re also concerned about teens being home alone and “literally and figuratively left to their own devices” and being socially isolated and unsupervised while their development needs for social interaction and support are being neglected.

      The petition states that “for most teenagers, spending the greater part of the day unsupervised at home poses a greater risk than COVID-19”. The parents are also circulating a form letter to send to VSB superintendent Suzanne Hoffman that says an education provided by the VSB should not be inferior and that VSB students deserve better.

      Superintendent of schools Suzanne Hoffman

      They note that other parents have signed petitions to further restrict school hours, and that some may “have reason for extra concern due to immune-compromised family members, or have the capacity to supervise home schooling”. They say those parents should have the option to have their kids learn remotely.

      The challenge

      The parents make a compelling case. It’s hard to justify how little class time their kids are getting when most B.C. high schools have been back full-time for two months. The parents are hardly ignorant of COVID-19 and its risks: the ones who started the petition include an infectious-disease specialist and an emergency-room doctor.

      On the other hand, many parents, teachers, and support workers are nervous about rising case numbers and the growing list of school exposures. Henry says transmission in schools does not seem to be occurring and that exposure numbers reflect what’s happening in the community. That should be encouraging news, but I know many find it hard to believe, given the tissue-thin “layers of protection” in schools and increasing COVID-19 infections in children and youth.

      I’m in the camp that schools should be back in session but with more of an effort and investment to make them as safe as possible, with fewer kids in each classroom at a time. The VSB has been doing a good job of this in its secondary schools, albeit that means less class time for teens.

      Martin Dunphy

      If evidence is showing that school safety plans are working and transmission is rare, that’s something to celebrate and factor into how plans evolve through the rest of the school year. On the other hand, if we start to see spread in schools, the plans need a rethink.

      I was—and remain—impressed with the VSB’s plan for high schools, which is in line with what B.C.’s K-12 restart plan initially laid out for stage two, which called for two days of in-class instruction a week for secondary students and a “density target” of 40 percent. The plan changed abruptly in late July, however, to no density targets and in-class instruction for all students for “the maximum possible within cohort limits”.

      The VSB submitted its plan with less than full-time instruction, and ministry officials signed off on it. I know many parents and teachers are happy with it wouldn’t like a full-time return to class. People have different perceptions and tolerances for risk, and it’s clear keeping kids home has risks, as does going to school full time. What’s the right balance?

      The best way to approach these decision is to look at the evidence, and in the case of COVID-19, the evidence is evolving and sometimes contradictory. Most schools were closed through the spring, and many have only been open a couple of months, so epidemiologists have to work with limited data to figure out what’s happening in schools.

      Although some experts, including our own Henry, say schools are not a significant source of COVID 19 spread, schools are reported by some experts to be responsible for a significant amount of transmission in Montreal. Others disagree and say the numbers of COVID-19 cases in Montreal schools simply reflect what’s happening in the community.

      The VSB-petition parents say in an email circulating among Vancouver parents that they’ve met with parent advisory councils, school principals, and two NDP MLAs and they have “the full support of the deputy Provincial Health Officer and the Vancouver Coastal Health Chief Medical Officer to return kids to school full time”.

      I don’t doubt that. Henry has been consistent in her position that students need to be in school and has not recommended shortening the school day.

      B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry

      The parents who want students back in class full-time met with superintendent Hoffman this week regarding the VSB plan. After the meeting, Hoffman told me by email the district will base its decisions about next steps after surveying families, students, and staff to seek feedback on improvements to its current model.

      A Ministry of Education spokesperson told me there are about 125,000 B.C. students learning in high schools using some form of a hybrid model, and tens of thousands of students are learning remotely.

      While it’s important we don’t let kids fall behind due to being out of class, it’s hard to dismiss the growing concerns of teachers and parents who see numbers rising and what they believe are inadequate prevention measures in their schools.

      Ideally, school boards would have the staffing and flexibility to provide a range of high-quality options for families to choose from, ranging from full-time, in-class instruction to a hybrid model and remote-learning options that are well supported by teachers and not left to parents to manage. That is not the case now, but if the political will and investment were there, it could be. In the meantime, districts are doing the best with what they have to work with.

      What’s the takeaway?

      It’s clear that public schools are essential, and it’s time we started treating those who work in them that way. For years, school boards have been pressured to put as many kids as they can in each class and as many students as possible in each school. We now have a teacher shortage and—after years of layoffs to balance underfunded budgets—trouble covering for those who are absent.

      Teachers are reporting high levels of stress and exhaustion and feelings of isolation. We demand and expect a lot of them, especially during this pandemic, and we don’t do enough to support, protect, and compensate them.

      Funding for new schools is so parsimonious that the ones we build are too small and congested. Money for school maintenance and upgrades has been flat for decades while costs have gone up. That’s left a lot of too-small schools with poor ventilation, or old, seismically at-risk buildings with too few restrooms and not enough places to wash hands.

      All of this makes it harder to keep kids and staff safe in the pandemic and is a reflection of how little we value these institutions we now say are essential and need to stay open (for now, at least).

      The petitioning parents want their kids to be in public school full-time and know how beneficial it is for them. They know the support that students get from teachers, counsellors, and support workers can’t be matched at home, particularly if parents are working.

      Henry has prioritized keeping kids in schools over other activities for a reason. Education matters, and what kids get from school is far more than what they learn in class. Whatever is decided in the short term, I hope the takeaway message from these difficult days is that our public schools are essential and should be prioritized as a public good, with the investments, facilities, and staffing to reflect that.

      I know many teachers and support workers are understandably anxious about the risks of COVID-19 in schools. I am too. We all need to do our part to bend the curve back down to reduce community spread so students and staff aren’t bringing COVID-19 to school.

      We need to take what we’ve learned so far, along with all reasonable precautions, and make evidenced-based decisions about how to proceed with learning in our public schools.

      If the evidence is solid that COVID-19 isn’t being transmitted in schools, and if we have enough data now to give us a clearer idea of that, then that should help guide next steps for all school districts, including the VSB.

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