Patti Bacchus: Is June too soon for kids to head back to school?

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      As we head into the last long weekend before schools would normally close for summer break, trying to get more kids back in class is a complicated process that may be more trouble than it’s worth for a few weeks of school.

      That’s the message I’m hearing from a lot of teachers who are worried about a lack of clarity and consistency around safety protocols and whether they’ll be able to keep their students and themselves safe.

      Many are also worried they’ll be expected to teach students in person by day but have to continue to support students who are learning from home as well. Others have no idea what they’ll do about childcare for their younger kids if they have to work at their school sites and childcares don’t all reopen.

      B.C.’s restart plan, which was released last week, says there will be a “partial return” to K-12 schools in June and a full return in September.

      It’s still a little murky when it comes to what that will look like at your local school. Part-time classes will likely open for elementary school kids up to Grade 5, and students in higher grades who need in-person support may get opportunities to get some or attend for a day or two a week.

      More details on a plan are expected from government tomorrow—a Friday before a long weekend, which feels a bit ominous.

      Teachers at several Victoria schools have been told to report for work on-site on Tuesday. Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association president Winona Waldron told me this morning (May 14) that teachers want to be back in class but they have real concerns about a lack of clarity about health and safety protocols.

      She says they expect about 50 students at each school site, as the district has expanded eligibility for essential service workers’ kids, in addition to students with various vulnerabilities.

      To date, Waldron told me, education assistants have been doing most of the supervision of essential service workers’ children, but many are worried about safety and are taking unpaid leaves, which means teachers are being asked to take on more of that work.


      I’ve heard from teachers in several other districts who are also being directed to return to their schools, at least once a week, although that varies by district.

      I hope we’ll hear from government tomorrow that they have developed protocols to keep students and staff safe, and that provisions will be made for employees who have risk factors or live with elderly or immunocompromised family members.

      Perhaps they’ll provide funding so schools can rent some big wedding-type tents to put on their fields in order to provide well-ventilated outdoor learning spaces. Surely there will be lots of those shelters available this June, as so many events are being cancelled.

      Will parents send their kids in June?

      If schools do open to students from kindergarten to Grade 5, on alternating days or some such in the next couple of weeks, will parents even opt to send their kids?

      There’s so much we still don’t know about how COVID-19 affects kids, and how much they can spread the virus. I’m seeing worrisome reports about a mysterious condition affecting kids that doctors are calling "pediatric multisystem inflammatory syndrome". Studies are also emerging that show children can catch and spread the deadly virus as well, although they generally seem to be less affected than older adults.

      Do we know enough yet to give parents confidence to send their kids back to class? I’m not convinced that we do.

      For some parents who’ve been really struggling with trying to work while caring for kids full-time and supporting their remote learning, having the option to send their kids to class even a few times a week may be a welcome option, and worth the risk. Others may not be ready to take the chance.

      Focus on the kids who really need to be at school

      Some kids really need to be back in class, and small numbers are already attending schools, including the kids whose parents are essential-services workers and some with complex learning needs.

      The small numbers make it easier to keep students and staff safe, and there’s no pressure for teachers and support workers who are immunocompromised themselves—or who have family members who may be at higher risk—to work in classrooms with students.

      That’s starting to shift, however, with districts telling teachers it’s time to start coming back into schools, at least part-time, as they prepare for a phased and gradual reopening to more students.

      We’re starting to get an idea of what schools and classrooms might look like when they reopen, and it’s not a pretty sight. There will be a host of new rules and procedures in place to prevent the transmission of COVID-19, and students will be limited in how they move around the school and interact with other kids.

      Teachers who have already had to rework their lesson planning into emergency remote-learning formats now have to think about how they’re going to teach part-time classes—along with teaching and enforcing all the new safety protocols—and keep learning going for students whose families chose to keep them home.

      That’s a lot.

      What about summer?

      Summer break is just a handful of weeks away. The Ministry of Education and the province’s public school boards should be offering free summer programming for students who are at risk of falling behind due to the COVID closures, including those with special needs and others with vulnerabilities that put them at a disadvantage when it comes to learning.

      A rich range of accessible summer-learning programs could help close the learning gap that persistently exists between students who are well supported at home by educated and affluent parents and those who are not. We know that a normal summer break can widen that gap, and what we’re experiencing this year due to COVID closures will compound it, unless those who make the decisions in our school system decide to do something about it.

      That would be a win-win. Teachers and education support workers whose families may have lost income due to COVID if a partner was out of work or a family business failed can have the option of applying to work over the summer break. The same for substitute teachers and support workers who may not have been called in during the COVID closures.

      Parents of kids with complex challenges, or those living in poverty or barely coping, could get some much-needed respite while their kids get to catch up in schools that are often empty over the summer.

      Delta School District

      It would also be a chance to help those kids get used to the safety protocols that will be in place when schools move to a full return.

      The case for taking it slowly

      B.C.’s leaders are taking a wise and cautious approach by delaying a larger-scale return to class until the fall. That will allow B.C. to see what works and what doesn’t in jurisdictions that have been quicker to get students back to class. We’ll also have time to learn more about how COVID-19 affects children and youth and whether they are significant transmitters of the virus.

      If my kids were still school-aged, and we’d survived this far, I don’t think I’d be willing to gamble with sending them back to school yet. This virus scares me even more than the idea of being stuck at home with bored kids (and that scares me too).

      Planning for September

      It appears the virus will be lurking and waiting to attack us for a while yet. We’ll need to try to resume life in some form beyond how we’re living now, come fall. It makes sense to do careful planning for how schools could operate safely.

      I’m heartened to hear that the various education partners—including the Ministry of Education, school boards, the unions representing teachers, and school support staff—are collaborating respectfully to put health and safety at the forefront of all decisions.

      That will be critical to the success and safety of the province’s on-site learning plan for schools. I give credit to John Horgan’s leadership style for establishing enough trust to enable this important work to happen. I have no doubt it wouldn’t have if the B.C. Liberals, who seemed to delight in antagonizing the B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF), were still in government.

      At a time when women in leadership roles are getting high praise for their calm and pragmatic leadership in fighting COVID-19, the BCTF’s president, Teri Mooring, is also giving a master class in communication as she does the rounds to various media outlets to explain the work that’s underway and what may come next, as well as in her social-media posts.

      Mooring exemplifies Dr. Bonnie Henry’s advice to be kind, be calm, and be safe, and she is a reassuring voice for teachers who are understandably anxious about being pressured into working conditions that may not be safe for them or vulnerable members of their families.

      The B.C. School Trustees Association’s president, Stephanie Higginson, is also proving to be a skilled communicator, and she sometimes appears alongside Education Minister Rob Fleming, helping deliver a united message to the public.

      In the meantime

      Altough I doubt we’ll see large numbers of kids heading back to school in June even if schools reopen to them a few days a week, surely some will, and that will be a good chance to work on safety and hygiene routines. A dry run, as they say.

      I ran one of my utterly unscientific twitter polls earlier this week, asking parents if they’d send their kids back to school if they could. Fewer than 15 percent of the 493 people who voted said they would. Sixty-three percent said no, while 22.5 percent said they were undecided.

      A Vancouver Island teacher messaged me to say: “If parents could hear the conversations about safety at schools and the lack of a solid plan, many would stay away. It's scary. There is no plan. I can't see how this is going to be safe. My school has nothing in place, and we're fumbling our way through the planning. I would never send my kid back.” Yikes.

      Quebec schools outside the Montreal area reopened to elementary kids this week, on a voluntary basis. News reports say hardly any kids showed up at some schools, while there were higher numbers at others.

      Parents shouldn’t feel pressure to send their kids back to B.C. schools before the end of the year, but for those who need to, having the choice is important. Fewer kids in class will make it easier to keep everyone safe, especially until we have clear and consistent safety protocols and standards in all schools.

      I want to see a plan for summer programming as well, and to hear about it sooner rather than later, so parents know if their kids will be getting the help they need to stay on track.

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