Patti Bacchus: It’s great to see school boards support climate strikers

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      What a difference a week makes.

      Greta Thunberg blasted international leaders this week at the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York with a blunt warning that “we will be watching you” and that “change is coming, whether you like it or not”.

      Thunberg’s searing words conveyed the anger and urgency of her message and her frustration at the lack of leadership and action by the adults in the room and governments around the world.

      “This is all wrong. I should be back in school,” she said. “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood.”


      Thunberg sparked the worldwide climate-strike movement in 2018 after sitting—waiflike and alone—in front of the Swedish parliament building with a sign saying she was striking for the climate.

      She seized the world’s attention and mobilized a generation.

      What’s the role of school boards in supporting student participation in climate strikes?

      Last week I wrote about why B.C. school boards need to support student participation in events like this Friday’s climate strike at Vancouver’s City Hall by announcing they will excuse student absences from class and that striking students won’t be penalized.

      I’d been thinking about it since I saw a tweet from New York Public Schools announcing support for striking students and assurance they wouldn’t be penalized for skipping school to attend climate rallies. I called on B.C. school boards to do the same, noting the only B.C. board to have done so publicly—at that point—was New Westminster.

      I decried that absence of leadership at the Vancouver School Board (VSB), which is chaired by a Green party trustee. The VSB was once seen as a leader in progressive decision-making. I noted, however, that Vision Vancouver VSB trustee Allan Wong was taking a motion to his September 23 board meeting asking his colleagues to join him in supporting student participation in the climate strike.

      I was pleased to see that Wong’s motion was approved unanimously this week and that students with a note from parents will be excused from school to participate in the climate-strike event and that they won’t be penalized for missing class. Field trips will also be permitted, as long as they follow the usual protocols, including parents’ consent.


      Late is better than never, although the board’s student trustee, Josh Harris, reported at Monday night’s meeting that several climate-strike field trips planned by teachers at his school had been cancelled at the direction of the school’s administration. Let’s hope someone cancels those cancellations.

      Since my column was published last week, I’ve been pleased to see several other B.C. school districts scrambling to come out with supportive statements. Vancouver and North Vancouver took it even further by following the Victoria school board’s lead in declaring a climate emergency.

      I was disheartened, however, to hear that the largest B.C. school district, Surrey, will not be allowing field trips to the climate strike this Friday. Other districts are allowing them. It sounds like Surrey’s elected board has left the decision to its district’s managers, which seems like a copout to me. This is a time for those who are elected to lead to actually do so.

      I noted in my last column that the B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) is supporting student participation in climate-action activities and is encouraging all school boards to excuse students from class to attend the events. BCTF president Teri Mooring also told me this week that the union has written to school boards to ask them to support teachers who are organizing related field trips.

      A teachable moment

      The point of striking is to disrupt and create pressure. It’s generally viewed as a political action. I’ve heard some arguments that school field trips should be “politically neutral”, although one could argue that almost nothing in life is politically neutral. Demands for bold climate action are solidly supported by science, just like immunizations are, and school boards all support vaccinating kids.

      Not permitting student field trips to climate strikes is just as political as allowing them, and which side of history should school boards be on?

      For some students, the only way they can get to climate-action events like this Friday’s climate strike may be via an organized school trip, with their parents’ consent, of course.

      With B.C.’s new curriculum, I hear a lot of buzz about experiential learning, critical thinking, and getting students engaged in issues they’re passionate about. Climate-action events tick off more boxes than spending an afternoon in a classroom.

      Martin Dunphy

      Students don’t have to agree with the cause—although I gather most do—but being there to witness a mass protest is a powerful lesson about democracy and citizenship, not to mention an opportunity to study what the science says about climate change and to brainstorm ways to prevent further planet degradation.

      The experience would be excellent fodder for rich classroom discussion and follow-up assignments that our professional teachers are more than capable of incorporating into classrooms in line with provincial curriculum.

      I emailed Education Minister Rob Fleming’s communications staff this week, asking if the minister supported climate-strike field trips and excusing students from class to attend climate-action events.

      He chose to not answer the questions directly, which is unfortunate and disappointing. According to an emailed statement his staff said to attribute to him (the Georgia Straight has a policy about not quoting from politicians’ emailed statements issued via staffers in lieu of interviews), he is inspired by students coming together in support of tackling the climate crisis, but he’s leaving decisions about attendance and field trips to districts.

      School boards need to take bold steps as they walk a fine line

      While B.C. school boards are waking up to the fact they can’t sit on the fence when it comes to supporting students demanding climate action from their governments, Quebec’s largest school board—the Commission Scolaire de Montréal—is boldly going where no other school board has gone before by cancelling school on the day of the strike.

      Locally, Emily Carr University of Art + Design is cancelling classes on Friday, while other postsecondary institutions appear to be leaving decisions about class cancellations up to instructors.

      Cancelling classes is a bold move that school boards may want to consider for future, major climate-action events.

      Thunberg pulled no punches in her harsh rebuke of those gathered at the United Nations General Assembly earlier this week. With her change-is-coming warning, school boards should take note and be prepared to stand behind and beside students as the climate strike movement continues to grow—or be prepared to answer to them.

      “We will be watching you,” Thunberg warned. Take heed.

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