Patti Bacchus: COVID crisis is an opportunity to change schools for the better

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      Just as teachers have managed, for the most part, to hastily convert their lesson plans to various forms of remote learning, B.C. Premier John Horgan says preliminary talks are underway about the potential reopening of B.C.’s public schools, perhaps as soon as mid May.

      Denmark resumed classes for kids up to Grade 5 last week, and New Zealand is planning for the same ages group to head back to class on April 27, so it’s no surprise it’s being considered here.

      The decision to send kids back to class will depend on how successful we are, collectively, at reducing the number of new cases of COVID-19, and “class” would undoubtedly look very different than it did prior to spring break. It might look different for a long time, and maybe forever.

      I understand the desire to get kids back to school as soon as public-health officials determine it’s safe enough to do so. While remote learning is going well for some students and families, others are struggling. For some, it’s not working at all.

      School closures and emergency remote learning may exacerbate existing inequities and have a disproportionately negative impact on vulnerable students. That’s something our provincial medical health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, has acknowledged and is clearly concerned about.


      We know that for many children and youth, the social connections and sense of community in schools are as—or more—important as the formal curriculum. Relationships with teachers, support workers, and classmates are key to a sense of well-being and security. This is especially true for children and youth who aren’t well supported at home or have parents who are ill or dealing with high stress levels themselves. The sooner we can give kids a semblance of routine, structure, and normalcy, the more we can reduce the pandemic’s negative effects on their lives.

      Who needs to go back most?

      I’ve been hearing from many parents who have children with special needs who say remote learning isn’t working for their children. If they aren’t verbal, they can’t have online conversations with teachers, support workers, or classmates. If they require various therapies, most aren’t getting it and some are regressing.

      The sooner they can be back working with their teachers, support workers, and other specialists, the better.

      Other families may be struggling with parents trying to work from home while they’re trying to support their kids doing schoolwork remotely. Lots of kids can work independently, but many can’t. It can all be too much.

      What will school be like?

      One of the many frustrations I had as a school trustee was that when we finally convinced the provincial government to fund a new school or a seismic replacement, they ended up being much smaller than older schools.

      Martin Dunphy

      The Ministry of Education has formulas for how many square metres new or replacement schools are funded for, which they refer to as “area standards”. They’re based on enrollment numbers and are miserly in comparison to how schools were built in the olden days, resulting in narrower hallways and staircases, lower ceilings, smaller gyms, and overcrowded lunch areas, if they even have them.

      This was never a wise idea. Overcrowded schools are stressful and don’t provide optimal learning conditions. Even a small growth in enrollment can’t be accommodated, as we’ve seen repeatedly in Vancouver schools like Elsie Roy, General Gordon, and Crosstown. They enable the spread of viruses, bacteria, and head lice. The cost savings are shortsighted and penny wise, pound foolish.

      To make matters worse, the B.C. Liberal government, to save money, pressured school boards to close schools that had surplus space and jam more kids into fewer buildings. They directed school boards to make plans to make sure schools were running at at least 95 percent capacity, leaving little to no extra space.

      That, unfortunately, is going to make it even harder for some schools to resume classes and ensure social distancing. If you’ve ever been in a high school when classes change, or in an elementary school when the recess bell goes, you can imagine hundreds of kids rushing through congested spaces and how ideal those conditions would be for a virus to spread.

      A new focus on cleanliness and hygiene

      Another casualty of the B.C. Liberals 16-year reign of error and underfunding on the education file is staffing levels for school custodians. Under pressure to find cost savings to balance underfunded budgets, some school districts cut daytime custodians in all schools. It seemed like a bad decision then, but perhaps less bad than others. Now it seems downright dangerous and foolhardy.

      Workloads for school janitors are generally ridiculous and make it impossible to keep schools and high-touch surfaces consistently clean. We’re going to need to fund school boards better so they can afford more custodial staff if kids go back to school before COVID-19 is eradicated.


      Perhaps students could also be involved in sanitizing spaces they use, as that may be a skill we’re all going to need for the foreseeable future.

      School districts and the Ministry of Education are also going to need to think about better access to sinks for handwashing and make sure they’re supplied with soap, hot water, and a sanitary way to dry hands. In some older schools, washrooms and sinks are too few and far between. Many portables have no running water. Sending a student to another building floor to wash their hands isn’t going to be good enough. 

      Good ventilation will be important too. We know the virus is transmitted more easily indoors, and stuffy portables and classrooms will increase risk.

      Maybe the “lowest-cost option”—that the Ministry of Education prefers for new or replacement school buildings—comes at far too high an actual cost.

      We’re going to have to organize schools differently

      Schools could stagger class times and bell times so only some groups of students are moving around at a time. They could have students attend in shifts—so fewer are in the building at a time—or come on alternate days, although that might drive parents around the bend.

      If students head back this spring—say, in mid- or late May—more class time could be spent outdoors if shaded areas are available with reasonable access to washroom facilities. That could also work in the early fall, before the rains come.

      It may also be time to think about moving to year-round schooling and staggering student attendance over 12 months instead of 10, so fewer kids are attending class at any given time.

      Some students, especially in higher grades, may be able to do a blended model, where some work or courses are done online and others in school. Maybe elementary schools could use space in larger secondary schools to keep kids spread out more.

      We won’t be seeing whole-school assemblies for a while, and physical education and after-school sports are going to look very different, if they continue at all in the short term. What kinds of physical activity could be done safely? What about music classes?

      For regular classroom instruction, students will need to be broken up into smaller groups to enable physical distancing. Classrooms jammed with 30 students, a teacher, and a support worker won’t work anymore (and probably weren’t working well for many anyway).


      One group could be working with a teacher while others could be working independently in other rooms with some form of adult supervision (but not necessarily a fully trained teacher).

      Speaking of which, we went into this pandemic with a teacher shortage and we’re going to have to think creatively about how we allocate the teachers we have, and attract more. The ones we have can’t be expected to be teaching small groups by day and uploading online lessons for others by night. We need to include them in planning how this will work—otherwise, it won’t.

      How will kids who normally ride transit or school buses get to and from school while practising social distancing? Maybe we need a renewed focus on community schools close to home instead of having kids go across town to specialty programs, at least in denser urban areas.

      In rural areas, maybe we need smaller school buses—or large vans and more of them—to reduce the number of students travelling together. Or larger buses, to enable physical distancing. No more cramming in kids three to a seat meant for two, the way we used to do on field trips when I was a kid.

      When I chaired the Vancouver School Board, we had discussions about post-disaster planning. We thought about how we’d get kids back in school after a significant earthquake that left many schools unsafe to reuse or in need of major repairs.

      We never thought about a pandemic like this and how we’d get kids back in school safely. No one is ready. No one prepared for this. Now the Ministry of Education and school districts are trying to figure out how to redesign their airplanes while they’re in the air.  

      Bring back school nurses

      When I was kid and felt sick, I’d go to the office and see the school nurse. She had a little room with a desk and a place to lie down. She (it was invariably a woman) would assess me and decide whether to call my mom to pick me up or just have me rest for a while if my asthma was flaring up.


      If a student was sick and there was no one to pick them up, she kept them in her office and cared for them and kept them away from other students. She also provided advice and guidance and gave us our vaccinations.

      Somewhere along the line, we stopped having nurses in schools; instead, health authorities have nurses who liaise with schools regarding medical issues. There could be many benefits to bringing back school nurses, particularly when it comes to supporting students regarding mental health. And now that we’re grappling with figuring out how to live and learn during a pandemic, school nurses could be key to helping students and staff stay safe from COVID-19 and other viruses.

      The opportunity

      The good news is we have a government that’s demonstrating its commitment to working collaboratively with education partners to come up with something that works for students and keeps everyone safe.

      I doubt that would have been possible if the B.C. Liberals were still in government. I thank our lucky stars daily that we have the leaders we have right now in B.C. Trust among education partners—government, school boards, school administrators, teachers, support workers, parents, and students—will be key to successful collaboration and problem-solving as we map out the path forward for B.C.’s K-12 students.

      And note that I included students. I have no doubt that a group of student leaders could come together (perhaps virtually, or at least physically distantly) and develop a workable plan for a safe, gradual return to school. I hope government and school boards are including student trustees and student-council leaders in their planning.

      B.C.’s public-education system tends to resist change, but this crisis may require changes that prove to be beneficial in the long run, and that can be a good thing.

      It may even spark a rethink in how we design, fund, and build schools and bring changes like year-round schooling and smaller learning groups that benefit kids who may have otherwise been falling through the cracks.

      The pandemic is forcing us all to accept changes we never thought possible. Many are demonstrating an impressive level of resilience, innovation, flexibility, and creativity. Albert Einstein said: “In the midst of every crisis lies great opportunity.” Although these are dark and troubling times, I’m optimistic that some good things can come of them for our public-school system. We need to approach this with open minds and respectfully collaborate and problem-solve.

      Schools are going to have to operate differently for the foreseeable future, and some changes may be permanent. Let’s make sure those changes improve learning conditions and make the most of this unwelcome opportunity to do things not only differently but better.

      Stay safe everyone, and go wash your hands.

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