Patti Bacchus: Let’s learn from this week’s school reopening

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      After scrambling to move lesson plans online at the end of March, B.C. teachers were directed to return to their school sites this week for a partial and voluntary reopening of schools.

      School administrators put in long hours during the past couple of weeks, working with their staff to implement safety protocols—from the provincial medical health officer and WorkSafeBC—to be ready for students on June 1. School janitors worked flat out to “deep clean” schools.

      In the lead-up to this week, thousands of teachers submitted requests for workplace accommodations that would enable them to work from home due to their own health issues and vulnerabilities or those of family members. For many, that required documentation from doctors, taking up time and precious health-care resources. School district human-resources departments worked on processing those requests, approving some and denying others.

      It was a ton of work and time, for a whole lot of people. Was it worth it? Perhaps it will be— if we learn some useful lessons and put them to good use before school starts again in September.

      Some classrooms had very few kids show up this week

      When school doors opened to students on June 1, some classes saw as few as two or three students turn up—and in some cases none at all. One teacher told me she had one student turn up in her Grade 1 class and the student cried throughout the day because they missed their classmates.

      A Vancouver high-school teacher told me she had two students in one of her classes and three in another. “The atmosphere in the building is sombre. The students who do show up just feel weird and awkward or sad,” she told me by text message on Tuesday. Others said that only a handful showed up but kept gathering in clusters and having to be reminded repeatedly to physically distance.

      Other teachers filled my Twitter direct-message inbox with stories, including: a child vomiting in class and potentially infecting others; classrooms that had barely been cleaned; having to commute 45 minutes each way to sit in an empty classroom; trying to support students remotely while the school’s Internet couldn’t support all the other teachers doing the same.

      Some teachers reported only one or a couple of students showing up for the B.C. June 1 school reopenings.
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      Others told me about being denied permission to work from home despite high-risk pregnancies, a child at home undergoing cancer treatment (and having a severely compromised immune system), spouses recovering from cancer, living with elderly parents, and so on.

      A lot of people told me the return to school was stressing them out and affecting their sleep.

      “Colossal waste of time and effort”

      When schools closed to students in mid-March, teachers, largely on their own, worked to move their lesson plans to remote-learning platforms. Few had any training or experience for this transition and received spotty support from their school districts.

      In an opinion editorial published this week in the Globe and Mail, political-science associate professor Hamish Telford and UBC Sauder School of Business learning-services director Rob Peregoodoff called the spring’s “online learning experiment” and the June 1 return to class a “colossal waste of time and effort”.

      That’s a harsh assessment, and I hope it’s wrong. Time will tell.

      I do think there can be valuable lessons learned and that some students will benefit from a few days back in school in June. Could those benefits have come without so much stress, effort, hard work, and cost, not to mention the mental and physical wear and tear on thousands of B.C. teachers? I think they could have, for the most part.

      A better plan

      We can’t change what’s happened over the past three months, but we can shift to a better course in weeks and months ahead.

      Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s provincial health officer, said Tuesday that some students will have fallen behind due to the COVID-19 school closures and will never make it up. Those are the kids I’m worried about most at this point.

      B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry

      Instead of trying to get schools open to all students who wanted to attend this week, the Ministry of Education should have focused on setting up programs for those kids who are falling through the cracks, in June and right through the summer. There’s still time to intervene and get them back on track.

      Teachers know which students aren’t succeeding with remote learning and who could benefit from face-to-face support. Many will be the same kids who were struggling before the pandemic. Education Minister Rob Fleming should be laser-focused on doing everything he can to ensure no child suffers lifelong consequences from this spring’s school closures.

      Research on prolonged school closures in the past shows some children not only fall behind for the rest of their lives but their children can also be at an educational disadvantage, resulting in multigenerational negative impacts, including lower educational attainment, reduced lifetime incomes, and poorer health outcomes.

      Education M|inister Rob Fleming
      Rob Fleming

      Fleming should ask teachers to identify students at risk of falling behind and schools should offer them voluntary, fully funded summer programs. Intense intervention now could prevent lifetimes of negative consequences from the school closures.

      Teaching and educational-support positions for those programs could be posted now, and teachers and support workers would have the option of applying for them and earning extra income over the summer. It will be similar to traditional summer-school programs, but with a more proactive and targeted effort to get students to attend.

      Students could be taught individually or in small, physically distanced groups, and mainly outdoors. Schools could put up temporary rented tent structures to provide shaded outdoor learning spaces. There will be lots of those available, because so many summer weddings and events that usually use them will be cancelled this summer.

      Planning for the fall

      Now that so much time and energy has gone to a hurried plan to have a random assortment of kids back at schools this month, administrators and teachers need to note what’s working and not working and apply that to plans for next year. I hope what they’ve gone through since the end of March doesn’t leave them too depleted to do that work effectively.

      It’s imperative that we learn from what’s happening right now—where teachers are struggling to balance face-to-face teaching while also supporting remote learning—and fix what’s not working and keep what is.

      With no sign of a vaccine being ready for widespread distribution in the near future, schools will have to continue with some kind of a hybrid model next school year, with learning taking place remotely and on-site. We may need to start organizing and staffing classes differently, with some teachers providing on-site support while others teach remotely.

      I hope we can land on some consistent technology platforms instead of stressing everyone out with the dog’s breakfast of what’s been in use for the past few months.

      We have some time now to think it through and do it better. I hope it isn’t squandered.

      In the meantime, it will be interesting to see how many students attend in the next few weeks and whether attendance picks up or the novelty of being back at school wears off and fewer students show up.

      Most teachers will be worn out by the end of June and will need a  restful break. Someone, however, needs to be working on plans over the summer so schools are better prepared in September. Government should hire (and pay) teams of teachers and administrators to develop plans that all districts can use to get off to as smooth a start as possible in the fall.

      Those plans should ensure students who need in-class support can get it—and can get enough of it. Those who can successfully learn remotely should have the option to continue that. Thought should also go to what else kids are missing that they need, like extracurricular activities and sports, and how those can be offered in a safe, physically distanced way.

      Experts say we should expect a second wave of COVID-19 infections in the fall, so let’s prepare for the worst and make sure we’re not leaving any kids behind and not burning teachers out. Over the summer, let’s help those who are straggling at the back get caught up.

      If we learn from the last few months and apply that to careful planning, perhaps the rushed return to class will have been worth the effort.

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

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