Patti Bacchus: Should we postpone spring break?

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      Minor “enhancements” (and by minor, I mean almost none) to B.C.’s COVID-19 school safety protocols announced today (February 4) won’t come as much relief to many of the anxious parents, students, and education workers who have been filling my inboxes since the start of this school year.

      But some of them are suggesting we postpone spring break as a safety measure.

      Before you throw the device you’re reading this on at something, hard, hear me out.

      I know many were hoping for an expanded mask mandate for schools, in line with other provinces, that would require students in grades four and up (like Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec, and Nova Scotia) to wear masks at school, or like Ontario, which is requiring masks for students Grade 1 and up.

      Alas, kids are different in B.C., or something, and our provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, will not budge and bring B.C. in line with other jurisdictions, despite pleas to do so. Unlike other provinces, masks will remain optional in B.C.’s elementary schools but will be required more of the time in secondary schools, but not while students are seated at their desks or while they’re eating or drinking (fair enough on that last, but I hope they’re not crammed around cafeteria tables like we were in my day).

      Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry

      Henry has also been clear that this is not the time to travel. She says we all need to stay close to home and only travel for essential purposes, like work or medical treatment. Would it help keep people home if we postponed spring break? Would it make it less likely for the more infectious variants to find their way into B.C.’s classrooms?

      I got thinking about this after I received this message last weekend: Please postpone spring break! Remember the March break of 2020? It was the beginning of a year of fear and pestilence. There wasn't a lot of fun to be had on that holiday. We had to wait until June for things to open up. This year people have made plans for their March break to travel. Planes are flying. Hotels are open. 

      It’s legal and there is little to stop them. We need to postpone the two-week March break and move it to June. If we do it now people can rebook their holidays without penalty. I work for the Vancouver School Board in an elementary school and I can see that people are not getting sick because they are following the rules. School is a safe place to be right now. A spring holiday will just open us up to new people and a spike in virus cases. Let's do it in June instead when things are safer and we can open the windows and doors.

      Those are good points. We don’t need more self-centred people to go off and vacation and bring back deadly viruses—in particular, more contagious variants, especially if school mask rules remain lax.

      Which is better, two weeks off in March or two weeks off in June?

      Also, who wants to spend two more weeks stuck at home, in March weather, with their family? Haven’t we all seen enough of each other, and played enough board games and done all the puzzles? Why not hold off until the weather is warm, the evenings long, and grandma and grandpa are vaccinated and can take the kids for a few days?

      If you go by Twitter, everyone working in schools is a nervous wreck on the verge of a breakdown. But many education workers, including teachers, education assistants, custodians, supervision aides, and administrators tell me they’re feeling reasonably confident about school safety protocols and believe it’s safer to have kids at school than in less structured settings in homes or the community, or travelling.

      A two-week break is not only a temptation to go on an out-of-town vacation, bored kids may be inclined to gather at each other’s homes while parents are at work, and parents who have to work during the break may have no choice but to send their kids to friends’ or relatives’ homes for supervision.

      Will emptying classrooms for two weeks in March put parents or kids at increased risk during the COVID-19 pandemic?
      Wikimedia Commons/Dobrislava

      We’re in the thick of COVID-19’s second wave, with more threatening variants becoming an increasingly alarming concern, which calls for some out-of-the-box thinking. Maybe bumping those two weeks to the last half of June, making for an early start to summer break, isn’t such a terrible idea.

      Up until a decade ago, spring break in most B.C. school districts was only a week (it still is in a few). The decision to add a second week to the break, along with a few more minutes on school days, was a budget decision about saving money: fewer days of school mean fewer days to pay employees on call (substitutes), along with some facility and transportation savings. It wasn’t about what’s best for learning—it was only about the bottom line on the ledger.

      A pandemic might be a good time to rethink whether those cost savings come with too high a price. If a two-week stretch off is too tempting for some—with the risk of cases increasing and more infectious variants spreading—it might make sense to put those vacay days on hold for now and enjoy them in June.

      Not so fast

      I didn’t think bumping spring break sounded like an outrageous idea. I thought it had some merit, actually (I still do), but I cautioned the person who suggested it that I was hearing from a lot of very stressed education workers who sounded like they were barely holding on and who were probably counting on that break to get them through this school year.

      I tweeted about the idea to test the waters, and those waters got churned up with sharply divided opinions. It turns out, not surprisingly, that some exhausted teachers are counting the days until their next break in the most stressful year of their careers and did not take kindly to the idea of postponing. Others who are feeling reasonably safe at school thought it was an idea worth exploring, or even taking the break back to one week in March and another in June, or taking a bunch of long weekends instead.

      Not one to shy away from controversial topics, I ran a completely unscientific Twitter poll (that got 774 votes) asking whether spring break should be postponed until June (21 percent said yes), kept as is (69 percent), or broken up into several long weekends (10 percent).

      Several parents told me their kids were exhausted from the high-school “quarter” system (where they do two courses at a time, intensely), and needed the break, even if it was to hang around the house in their pajamas for two weeks.

      When my kids were in school, I found the stretch from January to spring break a slog. The kids were usually battling a nonstop string of colds, flu, and the inevitable asthma flare-ups that followed, and getting them out of bed in the morning was a struggle. We were ready for that break by mid-March (although that was before we had Family Day in mid-February to give us a tiny reprieve.)

      Sunny and relaxing foreign destinations like Cancun, Mexico, are not an option for harried B.C. families during spring break 2021.
      Wikimedia Commonms/Dronepicr

      Some years we managed a warm-weather getaway, while in others we’d make a trip to Victoria or Seattle, and sometimes we just hung out at home and threw a birthday party for our kid with a middle-of-March birthday. I’m not sure how I’d be feeling now if we’d all been through a year of COVID-19, living in the same house. I don’t know how appealing two weeks together—at home in March weather—would be. Probably not very.

      I’d probably have preferred to have those weeks saved up for June, when the days are long and the weather is warmer. I’d be hoping the travel rules would be loosened up by then, as more vulnerable people would be vaccinated. If we could travel in B.C. by then, there’d be a lot more affordable options for things to do than there will be in March.

      Change doesn’t come easily

      Provincial legislation requires school boards to set school calendars a year in advance so families of students and employees can book vacations, tournaments, meetings, and childcare. They’re required to consult with parents and employee groups before making changes. Collective agreements often require agreement from employee groups before districts can amend their calendars. You can’t just decide to change the dates of breaks without going through some hoops.

      On the other hand, a provincial state of emergency can require drastic measures and setting the usual rules aside. No one should be travelling or going to tournaments this spring, so there’s nothing to cancel, although some meetings and conferences may be proceeding virtually.

      Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside

      I’d prefer the provincial and federal government take a harder line on international and interprovincial travel, with stricter quarantine requirements and harsh penalties for those who flout the rules. This pandemic is dragging on in Canada, and it’s time to snuff it out. I’m not sure penalizing those who are counting on spring break is the right way to stop others from travelling, but I do think there may be good reasons to consider changing school calendars for the remainder of this most difficult of school years.

      I was hoping for more from today’s update from Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside and Henry, and I was disappointed with how minor the “enhancements” of the safety guidelines are, after all this time and how much we’ve learned about the deadly virus.

      Given that spring break is only five weeks away, I doubt we’ll see any changes, which will come as a comfort to those hanging by a thread and counting on that break.

      But with such weak rules in place, let’s hope people decide to heed Henry’s advice to stay home and stay safe and keep COVID-19 and its more infectious variants out of our schools.

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