Patti Bacchus: Planning for an indefinite spring break

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      Most B.C. schools will be closing for a two-week spring break this week, but it’s time to think and plan for what happens after that.

      Despite warnings, many families will be travelling for long-planned vacations or to see family members in other parts of the world. Others will be spending time with relatives and friends. Will any of them unknowingly bring the COVID-19 virus back with them and risk infecting others at their school?

      Will schools even open after the break?

      We started this week with news of B.C.’s first death due to the coronavirus, which is also known as COVID-19. By Wednesday (March 11), the World Health Organization had declared the novel coronavirus a global pandemic. As I write this on Thursday morning, B.C.’s public schools are still open.

      Every day seems to bring more alarming news, as public health officials work to limit the transmission of the deadly virus. Around the world, universities and schools are closing and sending students home.

      While children and youth appear, so far, to be at low risk of serious complications from the coronavirus, we still don’t know enough about whether they’re getting it and transmitting it to others, including elderly relatives or those with compromised immune systems, who are more at risk.

      I’ve heard from many teachers and parents this week who are worried about virus transmission in schools. I don’t blame them. I can’t think of a more effective setting to spread an infection than in a building where hundreds of people gather every day in close quarters.

      What’s the plan?

      I’m not a panicker, but I am a planner. I think about potential scenarios and what to do in each of them. I’ve been thinking about what we need to plan for in case schools close, for either a few weeks or longer.

      Aside from the loss of learning time and concerns about students who need to finish courses to graduate, working parents with kids who are too young to be left alone could be scrambling for childcare. If B.C.’s schools have to close, daycares may need to as well. In fact, any grouping of kids might be too risky, leaving parents with limited childcare options.

      Closing schools would have wide-ranging socioeconomic impacts. We need to think of ways to mitigate those where feasible.

      Harder on some than others

      A decision to close schools would be a difficult one, and one that would be made by public health officials in consultation with school districts. They would carefully consider who would be affected and how, and measure the tradeoffs between staying open and risking increased spread of the virus against the impact of telling students not to come back after spring break.

      It’s a “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” decision. If the province’s medical health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, orders schools closed and the spread of the virus slows, she may be accused of overreacting. If she doesn’t, and more people get infected, she’ll be blamed for not acting sooner. She has a tough job; so far, she appears to be very good at it.

      Any kind of unplanned closures, even “snow days”, are harder for some families than others. Many children from low-income families rely on school meal programs that may provide breakfast, lunch, and snacks on school days. Some schools have backpack programs that provide kids with food they can take home on weekends. We need to think of ways to keep providing food to vulnerable kids during a closure.

      That could be done by continuing to have food ready and have volunteers who can pick it up and drop it off to families who need it.

      At home

      How could we support kids at home? Some won’t have up-to-date technology to participate in online learning if that’s offered during a closure. Some won’t have reliable Internet access, which is a barrier to participating in online learning opportunities. Could schools start working on a loaner plan so kids who need to take laptops or tablets home can do so? Could companies like Telus provide Internet hot-spot technology to students in families without Internet access?

      How can schools support students with special needs, who need specialized support, during an extended closure? Could education assistants go work with them in their homes? Could smaller numbers of students come to school in shifts of some kind?

      What about meeting the mental-health needs of students during what would be a period of heightened anxiety, with the increased potential for family conflict? Could students meet with counsellors over the phone or online?

      Some students live in crowded or unstable housing, where it may be stressful and difficult to focus on any kind of online school work, or schoolwork at all. How can we support them?

      When parents are stressed, it affects their kids

      Many parents will be facing financial challenges due to not being able to go to work because of the need to look after their children who aren’t at school or because of layoffs or other effects of COVID-19 on the economy. Some will feel compelled to leave kids unsupervised while they go to work. Are there ways government can provide assistance? What can we, as communities and neighbours, do to help them?

      The pressure may be higher for single-parent families and those with children with special needs who can’t just have an untrained neighbour or friend keep an eye on their kids while they go to work. What are the options we could offer them?

      School closures could mean work drying up for on-call school district employees, like substitute teachers and on-call student support workers. Are there ways to employ them to support kids at home?

      We’re in uncharted territory, and we may need to be creative in our planning and to be flexible in our expectations and willingness to do things differently.

      It’s time to set up clear communication channels and pull together in these uncertain and unsettling times.

      I’m a proponent of preparing for the worst while still hoping for the best. For now, we all need to do everything we can to reduce pressure on the health-care system so its resources can be directed to providing care for those who need it most. That means staying home and taking care of ourselves and our kids where possible.

      For those of you lucky enough to get time off for spring break, use it to get lots of rest, eat well, and spend relaxing time with your family. Reach out by phone or text to those who may be feeling anxious or vulnerable.

      And wash your hands. A lot.

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