Patti Bacchus: Is the Ministry of Education B.C.'s new dumpster fire?

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      Move over, ICBC: the Ministry of Education is in the running to be the B.C. government’s newest dumpster fire.

      Backlash to Education Minister Rob Fleming’s July 29 controversial back-to-school plan has been fierce, forcing him to announce three changes to the plan, including pushing back students’ school start to September 10 (from September 8).

      The second change was to mask policy. Fleming’s July 29 plan said masks were a personal choice, but that changed on August 17 and now staff and middle- and high-school kids will have to wear them in high-traffic and common areas and when interacting outside their learning groups when physical distancing can’t be maintained.

      The third revision, according to Fleming, “extends the authority to school boards to offer remote learning” options to students. That’s a major move from his oft-repeated position that all students need to be back in class next week. That change came August 26, cutting it close for beleaguered school-district administrators tasked with implementing government’s shifting guidelines in time to get schools staffed and classes and timetables organized and up and running by next week.

      On such short notice, it appears that B.C.’s 60 school districts are taking a wide-ranging approach to how they exercise that “authority”, such as it is.

      What isn’t clear is how this will affect how districts allocate staffing to schools and organize classes. School districts are funded with per-student grants, according to how many students are enrolled at the end of September. If kids are learning remotely and not registered in their local schools, presumably the funding they generate will go to pay the teachers who are supporting them remotely, meaning districts may not be able to afford to hold a space for them in regular classrooms.

      Fleming announced today (September 3) that $242 million in new federal funding will be divided up among school districts on a per-student basis, with half the amount coming this month and the second half in January. He’s leaving it up to districts to decide how to spend it. That works out to roughly $200 per student now, and another $200 in January. It won’t go too far, but it will definitely help.

      There’s no guarantee, of course, that school districts will use that money to hire extra teachers to support students learning remotely instead of leaving them to figure it out on their own or with their parents’ help, with minimal contact with a teacher. Several Vancouver teachers told me this week their principals believe classroom teachers may have to also provide assignments, check-ins, and assessments for any students working from home. That’s simply not sustainable or reasonable.

      In schools with wait lists, such as French Immersion, or schools that are over capacity and use a lottery to determine who gets in, students in some districts may risk not being able to get back into their schools, once they feel it’s safe to return, if they don’t get back in class next week.

      B.C. Education Minister Rob Fleming

      That crunching sound you hear is exhausted and frustrated school-district administrators around B.C. running numbers and scenarios to figure out how to support students and staff who prefer a remote model while assigning staff and organizing classes in regular on-site schools—without knowing for sure how many kids will show up next week.

      Leaving this so late in the summer means scrambling to determine who wants to come to class and who wants to work from home. Just thinking about how complicated this is makes my head ache, knowing how tight school-district budgets are and how little flexibility they have to run schools with small class sizes in the absence of additional funding to hire more teachers.

      I’m also hearing, anecdotally, about groups of parents trying to organize private learning pods to create their own small learning groups that will try to hire teachers to support students with remote learning.

      If students stay home or in private pods and don’t show up as enrolled and in class, their districts will likely lose funding, which could mean having to lay off teachers that they need. It’s also still not clear if some teachers will decide to take unpaid leaves to avoid being in classrooms full of students all day and whether districts will have enough teachers to cover classes.

      Ad nauseam

      Not only has Minister Fleming given school districts ever-changing guidelines and messages for school start-up, someone in his ministry thought it was a bright idea to have a television ad made showing Dr. Bonnie Henry addressing a handful of students in a classroom equipped with a nice, clean sink.

      It was not.

      Once again, reaction was swift and it was harsh. The B.C. Teachers’ Federation called out the Education Ministry for a misleading portrayal of what actual classrooms will look like, and a ministry spokesperson told Global B.C. that “the number of students in the room was limited for health and safety reasons and the children were placed at safe distances from each other.” Ooof.

      If only real students and teachers were afforded the same safety measures that child actors and our own provincial health officer get when they’re “videotaping” (do people still videotape?) a television commercial.


      Talk-show host Stephen Colbert coined the term truthiness back in 2005, and it came to mind when I listened to Fleming’s update last week on districts’ back-to-school plans. He said families should feel confident “school are doing everything possible to keep students and staff safe”.

      Colbert described truthiness as truth that "comes from the gut" and not from facts. Maybe Fleming believes in his gut that it’s impossible to provide lower class sizes, bigger learning spaces, improved ventilation, and consistent physical distancing, but the fact is those things are possible if the will and the funds to provide them are there.

      Politicians tend to exaggerate at times, but you’d think Fleming would be more cautious given the recent spanking the B.C. Ombudsperson gave him in a report released just two weeks ago about his ministry’s botched handling of provincial exam marks last year, and how Fleming’s own statements and those of his ministry misled the public about the extent of the problem.

      How bad was it? So bad the Ombudsperson warned the ministry it would have to "certify in writing" that all communications are "accurate and not misleading" in future.

      Between the Dr. Henry classroom ad and Fleming’s truthy claims of schools doing “everything possible”—which schools simply don’t have the means to do and aren’t doing—Fleming is adding insult to injury at a time when he should be pulling out all the stops, including the cash, to support the school districts he has left to figure it all out.

      I don’t expect Premier John Horgan to step in and do anything about Fleming and his mess of a ministry, given how high Horgan is riding in the polls right now, and with many in the B.C. NDP camp champing at the bit for a fall election in hopes of securing a majority. If anything, Horgan is distancing himself from the schools plan, the weakest link in his government’s COVID-19 response—which was going well until it wasn’t, with daily new cases now moving into the troubling triple-digit territory.

      Fleming’s update last week was supposed to give parents clarity and confidence in his back-to-school plans. Instead, it confused many and left them with more questions than answers. He does that a lot.

      He also failed to answer reporters’ direct questions about whether he’d visited any classrooms to see how setup would work. He was asked about what would happen regarding the September 30 enrollment count and whether students learning remotely would keep their spots in their schools and replied with a wordy statement that never answered the question. Argh.

      That’s the day he tossed out his bit about “extending authority” to school boards to provide remote-learning options. The translation for that shameless bafflegab is that he’s backing off his July 29 plan for all students to return to class full-time and leaving it up to school boards to figure out how to offer temporary remote-learning options for those who don’t trust his dubious everyone-goes-back plan.

      What to watch for

      I hope we don’t see any outbreaks of COVID-19 when schools resume next week. If there are any, public-health officials will direct the response and determine who needs to quarantine, whether a school needs to close, or if—in case things get really bad—they all need to close, or perhaps just some districts.

      During the next few weeks, school districts will be scrambling to figure out who is back in class, who is learning remotely, and who has withdrawn to become part of a private pod or a homeschooler.

      District human-resources departments will be working overtime to figure out assignments for teachers and support workers and determine which staff members are eligible for work-from-home accommodations. For the time being, it would make sense to assign the latter to support students choosing to learn remotely.

      School districts may have to collapse some classes and reassign teachers if only a half or two-thirds of a class shows up.

      Kudos to school districts

      I’m impressed with some school districts that have diplomatically bypassed Fleming’s various plans and directives to come up with plans to keep learning groups or cohorts much smaller than Fleming requires and provide the flexible options parents have been requesting. They’ve managed to do that in spite of Fleming, not because he has made their jobs any easier.

      The Surrey school district and its superintendent, Jordan Tinney, for example, have showed thoughtful and innovative leadership where Fleming has not. Tinney is also a master class in communication, posting clear, concise videos on his district website to keep parents and students informed. Fleming should ask him for some tips.

      Here’s hoping for a safe and smooth return to class and for someone to take charge of the flailing Ministry of Education in the meantime and put out the sparks that threaten to become a raging dumpster inferno at a time when school districts are working to open schools safely. I’m not holding my breath, however, but I am crossing my fingers that all goes well. 

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