Patti Bacchus: Going back to school riskier for some than others

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      We may all be in this pandemic together, but it’s way harder on some than it is on others.

      Public education is intended to level life’s uneven playing field, giving every child access to equitable opportunities to reach their full potential and to enable and empower them to become engaged and prosperous citizens.

      Yet we know kids from affluent families with educated parents are statistically much more likely to be successful in school than those from lower-income families. A student’s ability to learn is affected by everything from nutrition, sleep, feelings of security and connectedness, and being able to breathe clean air and drink uncontaminated water.

      Much of that depends of a child’s parents’ ability to afford safe, adequate housing and buy good-quality food, and to be home enough to provide stability and structure. That’s hard to do if you’re a single parent working three part-time jobs that don’t provide sick pay or benefits, or if you have a chronic, debilitating illness.

      School boards are aware of these disparities and do much to mitigate them through school meal programs and additional supports, like on-site dental clinics and additional staff to provide supports to at-risk students. For some kids, school is their safest place, where they can connect with trusted adults.

      B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has repeatedly emphasized how important it is for schools to reopen because of the immense harm many children and youth may experience when their schools are closed, and rightly so.

      When schools closed last spring and moved abruptly to a remote-learning model, some students thrived, but many did not, and some dropped off from remote learning altogether.

      It’s hard to learn remotely if you don’t have wifi in your home or if you share your living space with several others. It’s also hard if you don’t have technology devices to use, or if you have them but you have to share them, or if they are older and don’t run the applications you need to use.

      B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry
      Government of B.C.

      It’s also difficult to focus on learning if there isn’t any food in the house and no one to help you get to your school to pick up a to-go meal. It’s tough to concentrate when your parent gets laid off due to the pandemic and is worried about paying bills. Perhaps you’re worried about your mom catching COVID-19 in her frontline job, and you have to supervise younger siblings while she’s at work. Maybe there’s violence in your home, and you’re afraid and stressed.

      Or perhaps you’re a disabled student, or have a parent with a disability. You may not be getting the specialized support you need to be successful at remote learning.

      Then there are the many families in B.C. for which English is a second, third, or fourth language, with parents who struggle with English. Imagine trying to supervise your child’s home learning if you couldn’t understand what they’re supposed to be doing.

      Getting kids back to class is a good decision, overall, if it’s done right.

      When a choice isn’t a choice

      Schools across North America are reopening this month and parents have to decide if they feel safe sending their kids back to class, if they’re lucky enough to have a choice.

      They have to consider how much COVID-19 is circulating in their communities, and what kind of safety measures are in place in schools. Then they’ll have to weigh their own risk factors and tolerance, and which learning options are available.

      For some, there will be no choices. They have to go to work and need somewhere safe for their children to be. If they don’t get to work, they don’t get paid. If they don’t get paid, they can’t pay rent and buy food for their kids.

      Other parents who don’t feel it’s safe for their kids to go back (or safe for at-risk family members to have a household member going to school) have several choices. I’ve heard from some who are planning to hire tutors (who may be teachers taking unpaid leaves from their regular jobs) to teach small, private pods of students.

      Some have space in their homes to set up homeschooling and have the time to be with their kids and work with them to support learning. Many school districts are providing temporary remote-learning options, but those will rely on parents to supervise and support their kids’ learning with minimal support from teachers.

      Demand for remote-learning options started growing when parents realized in late July that kids were expected to go back to school full-time, in classes that could be too crowded to provide effective physical distancing, and where masks would be optional, in learning groups of up to 60 for elementary kids and 120 for high schoolers.

      While public-health officials consider a range of factors and balance what’s in the best interest of the public as a whole, what makes sense at a macro level doesn’t always make sense to individuals. Some folks really don’t want to get this virus due to risks of serious complications. They can take precautions to keep their bubbles very small and reduce risk of exposure and want to keep that up, and for many, school learning groups are just too big.

      B.C. education minister Rob Fleming
      B.C. government

      While Henry made the right call to open schools, our government could and should have taken more measures to reduce the risk of COVID-19 in schools but chose not to.

      Instead, they decided to release a plan that calls for all students to return to class, with no requirement for physical distancing within learning groups, and no requirement to wear masks in class, or wear them at all, for younger kids.

      This creates a paradox in which the students who were most at risk when schools were closed may also be the most at risk of harm when they reopen to B.C. students today (September 10).

      Consider that lower-income, racialized, and immigrant families are disproportionately likely to work in front-line “essential” jobs, live in more crowded (and possibly intergenerational) housing with shared spaces, and have preexisting health conditions such as heart or lung disease or diabetes. Lower-income families may also be more likely to be exposed to poorer air quality from living near busy arterial roads and more likely to rely on public transportation, which may increase their risk of COVID-19 exposure or complications.

      Parents of students with special needs, who already struggle to have their children fully supported at school, also have to decide if they can risk their child being exposed at school, knowing catching the virus could be catastrophic for some with serious health conditions. They may also worry about who will care for their kids if they become ill themselves.

      Women are bearing more than their share of the brunt of the pandemic’s effects—often having to cut back on paid work to care for children and other relatives—and they now have to choose between staying home to support their kids, working remotely because of concerns about the safety of schools, or continuing to work. If they opt for the latter, they risk having to take time off if there’s an exposure at school and an order to self-isolate and increased chances of actually catching the dreaded virus.

      It didn’t have to be like this

      Reopening schools is the right decision, overall. A better opening plan that included reduced class sizes, more outdoor learning spaces, larger alternative facilities (postsecondary and other community facilities that could enable greater distancing for classes), an investment in upgrading school ventilation systems and adding air purifiers, and more use of barriers, masks, and protective equipment like face shields would have made decisions easier for the parents who have choices.

      A better and safer plan would reduce risks for those who don’t have choices and have to send their kids to school while they go to their own frontline jobs, or perhaps work in a care home with vulnerable seniors.

      COVID-19 affects our lives in different ways, and government had an opportunity to come up with a school plan that everyone could feel confident about. Instead they put out a plan that’s riskier than it needed to be. Education Minister Rob Fleming’s 11th hour announcement that schools could provide remote-learning options resulted in a rushed patchwork of confusing transition programs that vary from school district to school district, resulting in inequities and frustration for many families, who are scrambling to figure out what to do.

      I’m hoping for the best for everyone heading back to school, but I won’t be surprised if there are COVID-19 cases in schools. If so, groups of students and staff may have to self-isolate, which will be much harder economically and emotionally on some families than others. I hope that’s the worse that happens, and that the infection doesn’t spread in schools and make anyone severely ill, or worse.

      Closing schools comes with risks for many kids and their families, but reopening them does as well, for some more than others, particularly when government isn’t taking all the steps it can, within reason, to prevent transmission of the virus in schools.

      Henry’s job is to manage the pandemic and ensure our medical system doesn’t become overwhelmed. She has done a good job so far. It’s up to each of us to do our part to reduce the spread of the virus, but that’s a lot easier for some than it is for others.

      I expected an NDP government to look out for the most vulnerable among us, but it seems they’ve shortchanging them with inadequate safety measures for schools, leaving the most vulnerable among us at the most risk, again.

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