The first day of school is set to start in just over a week but many concerns remain unratified by the Ministry of Education, says the president of the Campbell River District Teachers’ Association.
“I think some of the biggest concerns come from the perception that school districts – this one as well – are having to execute a plan that the government is trying to sell as opposed to something that is actually truly going to mitigate all the safety concerns that parents and students, teachers and support staff realistically have,” says David Harper. “This is insanity. They’re saying this is all easy peasy and it’s not. This is not going to be school as people know it. We will make this happen. But it’s not going to work; it’s not going to be school.”
Harper is frustrated that government officials’ seem to be out of touch with the reality of the situation in the majority of schools and classrooms across the province.
In-class learning for our kids is more important than ever. That’s why we have new guidelines in place to keep everyone safe. For more information on how school will look this year visit: https://t.co/ZL1SfULkAk pic.twitter.com/z0b9J2ZO7r
— BC Government News (@BCGovNews) August 28, 2020
“I’m appalled by the way they used her and put her up in that ad in that classroom,” he says. “I watched yesterday and it was Bonnie Henry trying to slough it off and say ‘well, you know, I was speaking to parents and students.’”
But Harper argues the video didn’t have to take place in an “ideal classroom” with “beautiful sinks” and “incredible social distancing going on.”
“If you’re the average teacher and you see that ad, you are incensed,” he says, “because you know that when students arrive, if you have a Grade 4/5 split class, you’re going to have 28 kids stacked up like cordwood and there’s not going to be two metres between them, you trust me on that. And they don’t have to wear masks.”
B.C. public schools will be using a cohort system this fall, and physical distancing is not an expectation within them.
In Campbell River elementary schools, classes will be paired with up to one other class to create a cohort. They’ll have lunch and recess together but will otherwise remain with their classmates.
In local high schools, students will be operating on a 1/8 system, meaning they’ll only have one class that they’ll be working on for a five-week period. It means the learning cohort will remain exponentially smaller than the provincially-allowed 120 people.
Harper applauds that decision.
“I think our district has made the correct choice in saying students will have one block with one teacher for one day,” he says. “That’s as safe as we can make it given that she’s [Dr. Bonnie Henry] saying people don’t have to wear masks.”
The lack of mandated mask-use across the board in schools is especially frustrating for Harper given the public health messaging we’ve been bombarded with encouraging the use of masks in settings where a physical distance of at least two metres cannot be maintained.
“The public wants to take this seriously, but unless they come down with the directive and say everyone must mask up, you’re going to have enough people who won’t and then we get into this little battle royale around whether you should or shouldn’t,” he says. “They need to take responsibility and say: ‘There’s no option, you will mask up.’”
Elementary school students will not be required to wear masks. Middle and secondary school students will need to wear a face covering when they’re in high-traffic areas like hallways, as well as anytime they’re outside of their learning group and can’t maintain physical distance.
Students will also be required to wear masks on the bus and, if they’re taking the ferry, while in the terminal and on the boat.
Harper says that his grandson will be wearing a mask when he heads back to class. But he’s worried that if it’s not a commonly adopted practice, his grandson could face bullying.
In a special townhall-style school board meeting on Aug. 25, Superintendent Jeremy Morrow addressed the use of masks in schools and said they would support anyone choosing to wear a face covering.
“I think that we will see more masks than less and we will make sure regardless that that choice is a protected choice,” he says, “and that we remove that stigma if there is any.”
Students that are going back to school for in-class instruction will face a learning environment much different from the one they left before spring break.
“People have to accept and realize that it will not be going to school as normal. Teachers are going to make happen what they can the best that they can. They’ll move Heaven and Earth the same way they did last spring to do the best they can,” says Harper. “But there’s not going to be any more of this ‘OK, I’m going to be in the class sometime and then I’m going to be online remote for safety.’ No, you’re either in class, or you’re online remote.
“The government has made it real clear that parents have to make really hard choices.”
Harper says the return to school isn’t an education plan, rather, it’s a business plan.
“This is about forcing parents to put their kids into school so that employers can say you have to come back to the office now because you can’t use the excuse that you have to be at home with your child and so, therefore, you get to work remotely from home,” he says. “It’s psychologically crippling for people.”
But when it comes down to it, school districts are doing the best they can based on the resources they have and the funds allotted to them by the ministry.
“It’s not the school district’s fault. The school district has to do what they’re told to do. The province owns this,” says Harper.
“I know the schools, they’re doing everything they can by the book. I know that in this community, that people can trust that the system is going to deliver absolutely what’s expected of them and then some in terms of health and safety,” he says. “But the problem we have for a large chunk of the populace, it’s not good enough.”
Harper says that based on the informal calls he’s made to schools around the district, there’s an indication that many students won’t be heading back to class.
“The preliminary results are not good,” he says. “The public is voting with their feet. They’re saying: ‘No Adrian Dix, no Bonnie Henry, no Rob Fleming. This is not good enough.’”
A spokesperson for the school district says that while they don’t have the full data back from surveys querying families of their choice for learning this year, they have data for about half the schools, and 91 per cent of the families said they will be sending their kids to in-class instruction.
At the end of the day, Harper says teachers and support staff are going to do the best they can in these difficult circumstances.
“They will make happen what they can but you’re going to have to lower your expectations of the public school system because for us to put the health and safety of your children first, that’s going to take time and that’s going to mean that you have to change the way you might normally teach.”
With schools restricting the use of shared supplies, that could mean activities that would normally get students excited for learning may not be an option this year.
“Pandemics have an impact,” he says. “The only way we’re going to knock this thing back is as a community, all of us together take this seriously. And right now teachers and support staff do not feel that this is being taken seriously enough in a school setting. That’s the real issue.”
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