Patti Bacchus: The 2020/21 school year’s rough start

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      I’ve been thinking of the novel The Hunger Games a lot this week. It’s the one where young “tributes” must compete in death battles in the post-apocalyptic nation of Panem, in a perverse annual ritual.

      It’s not enough they have to kill or be killed (or both) in a televised outdoor arena. If the bloody action isn’t fast-paced enough, the game makers turn the dials to start artificial wild fires or unleash genetically modified swarms of tracker insects, or other nasty tricks to juice up the macabre drama.

      I thought of parallels to this week, as kids headed back to schools in the midst of a pandemic while breathing the worst air in the world coming from wildfires in the U.S. and swatting away clouds of moths.

      What next?

      At the risk of sounding over the top, I’m starting to wonder if teachers and school support workers have become our tributes, heading into perilous arenas commonly known as schools.

      A key school COVID-19 prevention measure, set by the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, is to keep kids outside as much as possible and open windows and doors, as science is telling us that being outdoors and having good ventilation significantly reduces the transmission risk of the coronavirus. 

      “Is that so?” said an evil game maker. “We’ll see about that.” Then came the smoke and health advice to close windows and stay indoors. Perhaps the games have begun.

      How is back to school going?

      I asked people on Twitter to let me know how back to school is going. I’d planned to compile the messages for this column, but I got so many I can’t begin to include them all, so I’ll go through main themes and include examples.

      The good news

      Many teachers told me they were happy to see their students back and how much they’d missed them. Parents told me their kids were happy to be getting up and heading back to class after being home for months.

      Several teachers said parents have been overwhelmingly kind, patient, and supportive about all the new protocols. It sounds like many are taking Dr. Bonnie Henry’s oft-repeated reminders to be kind, be calm, and be safe. Well done.

      Teachers also had praise for hard-working principals and vice principals, who are doing everything in their limited power to support staff in implementing safety guidelines and procedures and responding to questions and concerns and working collaboratively to solve problems. That’s terrific news.

      The smoke

      I was surprised to hear Education Minister Rob Fleming on CKNW radio earlier this week saying it was fine for kids to go outside and play in the smoke at recess and lunch unless they had some kind of lung condition. Maybe it’s less dangerous than staying inside with unmasked classmates in poorly ventilated classrooms, but sheesh. Health officials have been warning people to stay indoors and limit exertion, but, “Hey, kids, go out and play.”

      Education Minister Rob Fleming said children without lung complications could go outdoors while Vancouver experienced air quality that ranked with the world's worst.

      I heard from parents who told me their kids weren’t given a choice to stay inside for recess if the smoke was bothering them. One messaged me that her kids, who are in grades 5 and 7, were “told go out and just deal with it".

      In other schools and districts, teachers were directed to keep kids indoors in classrooms due to the smoke. No easy answer here.


      Remember when Fleming said masks would be available for staff and students?

      “No masks were handed out on Thursday or Friday to students at my kids’ Vancouver school. No face shields for teachers,” one parent messaged me.

      “They just updated guidelines yesterday and the new guidelines say to encourage parents to send masks in case a child gets sick at school and needs to wear one. But that is contradictory because we were told they would be provided. So maybe not all districts are providing them,” another said.

      The other issue is what teachers can and can’t tell students regarding mask use, and that seems to vary from school to school and district to district.

      “We had a staff meeting last week and a heated conversation between teachers and administrators about students wearing masks. They said we can’t discuss or encourage mask use, even to suggest kids wear them when walking in crowded hallways.” 

      I got a more positive response from a teacher who said, “In my school, we’ve created a mask-wearing culture. When adults lead, kids follow.”

      B.C. public health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said in August that masks "interfere with the ability to learn" and that it is "probably unrealistic" to expect young children to wear a mask all day.

      But another told me their school sent parents an email saying masks aren’t recommended for elementary kids due to the increased likelihood they’ll touch their face and eyes and because kids may need help putting them on and taking them off.

      “I asked if I could ask a child to wear a mask when they were working one-to-one with me in the support room. The answer was a resounding no,” a teacher messaged me. “When I quoted Fleming saying ‘I expect there’ll be fairly wide spread mask use – school’s will want to encourage this,’ I was told ‘Fleming is a politician. We follow Dr. Henry's guidance only.”

      And lots like this: “Not a very strong atmosphere of mask wearing in my school. Disappointing. Students side by side at tables in some classes.”

      Class sizes and physical distancing

      Remember when Fleming pivoted in late August to say school districts could provide remote-learning options (as opposed to late July when he said all students would be heading back full-time, with a few exceptions)? And then he announced federal funding would be given to school districts to help with that? Well if you thought that meant class sizes would get smaller and allow for greater distancing, think again.

      “Our Surrey school lost a division, and nine out of 10 divisions are maxed out. There isn't any room for bigger spaces with fewer faces.”

      It sounds like many schools that had students opt for remote learning combined classes to save on teachers, resulting in as large—or larger—classes as there would have been if all kids opted to in-class learning.

      Who is teaching the students who are learning remotely?

      I thought everyone seemed to agree it wasn’t sustainable for teachers to teach both in-person classes and remote-learning students. That wasn’t going to happen this fall, right? Wrong.

      “Not sure how I’m supposed to teach two hours of online instruction via videoconference each day to the transitional learning students, along with engaging in-class students. Towards end of day there is also small group video conferences with the teacher for check ins and support before day end.”

      I’m also hearing that resource teachers who are supposed to be supporting students with special needs and those assigned to teach English-language learners are being reassigned in some schools to support remote learners.

      That leaves students who need extra support to succeed to struggle along without it.

      Health and safety

      I can’t begin to capture all the alarming messages I’ve received about problems in terms of cleanliness, hand hygiene, and general safety protocols. Teachers are being told they’re responsible for cleaning high-touch surfaces in their classrooms but given inadequate supplies to do so. Some are told to ration hand sanitizer. In a pandemic. The mind boggles.

      “I get the feeling my district is hoping that they can get away with doing as little as possible unless the occupational health and safety committee presses them for it. They are willing to act on it, but they are willing to let things slide if we don’t come up with it.” 

      “I was told by administration that cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces for anything in a classroom, such as doorknobs, light switches, tables, desks and chairs used by multiple students, will be done by the teacher or student. Not enough custodians or custodial time.”

      “My older daughter started high school and went to two orientations. At neither one did they wash hands or sanitize at all. They talked about it but students were not asked to do it a single time.”

      “My classroom and most of my colleagues’ rooms did not have their tables cleaned from Thursday to Friday and I have yet to see a high-touch surface cleaned once in my room. People are trying really hard. The expectations are insanely unrealistic.”

      “I’m a TTOC (substitute teacher). I went to two schools this week and the kids all weren’t wearing masks, no ventilation in the classroom (we were told not to open windows), and the kids didn’t respect distancing from when I asked. The kids were breathing on me as they were really close to me even though I wore a mask. I witnessed kids coughing for fun.”

      “Already many of the regulations have been scrapped or sidestepped. Staggered recesses? One person in the bathroom at a time? That lasted about five seconds. No distancing with kids. Cleaning is suspect. Many staff see precautions as a giant inconvenience.”

      “Schools look the same as in March except for a few more bottles of sanitizer. Nothing has been removed, kids sit at tables close together or in desks touching each other. Adults wearing masks under their noses or pulling them down to talk. It's exhausting and nerve wracking.”

      One said they felt like they were “on the lower deck of the Titanic”.


      A key part of the B.C. back-to-school plan was to keep students in cohorts or learning groups of up to 60 for elementary students and 120 for secondary. How is that working? Well here’s what some had to say to me.

      “Cohorts in my school have already been modified. We got a new grid Friday at 3 pm. Most classes had to shuffle. This affected about 10 divisions! Nothing about the first week back makes me feel safe and that there’s a plan.”

      “The cohort is a joke. Some hybrid/in-person alternating schedules are so complex it’s not possible to get any effect from the pretend social distancing. It’s on paper only; not in practice.”

      “In some high-school classes we have more than two cohorts, so in order to keep six feet of space between all cohorts, students within their cohort are sitting extra close together. “


      “I’m in grade 12 and I found out today that I have six weeks to master a subject, not 10. I’m feeling really anxious about this.”

      “I don’t have enough time to get home from morning class to participate in my online remote class. They say we won’t lose marks and can watch a recording of the class, but that isn’t the same as participating.” 

      Others reported massive amounts of homework because so much material has to be covered in a short time, as courses are now taught quarterly in many high schools. Some also say teachers are warning them to only stay home if they’re really sick because they’ll fall behind if they miss too many classes, because so much has to get covered in each one.

      More exclusion

      Parents say they’ve been told to keep their kids with special needs home due to lack of support workers and plans for them. This isn’t a new problem, but it may be worse this year than in others.

      Many aren’t getting resource-teacher support, as those teachers are being redeployed to support remote learners. That’s discrimination, and I’ve had it up to here with services being pulled from students with special needs as a solution to staff shortages and whenever the going gets tough.

      How about pulling senior district managers out of their offices into schools to cover for shortages instead of those whose jobs it is to support students who need extra help? 

      Some thank yous

      Thank you to teachers, support workers, parents, and students for all the updates. I haven’t even begun to do them justice in this column. I’m hoping things improve and problems get solved. I hope the game masters don’t have any more tricks in store and we get back to single-digit new daily cases, or none at all.

      Thank you to our tributes—oops, I mean teachers—and school support workers, who are putting their own health and safety on the line, along with their families, to keep schools open in these troubling times.

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