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Five Things to Know about Life with Closed Schools

The government says learning will continue. But how is still a question mark.

Katie Hyslop 24 Mar

Katie Hyslop is a reporter for The Tyee. Reach her here.

Springs has just begun, but with all B.C. kindergarten to Grade 12 classes indefinitely cancelled until further notice, school could well be out for summer.

When Education Minister Rob Fleming announced the immediate shutdown of schools, he said teachers would still be expected to work and learning would continue.

“We’ve urged schools and school districts to begin planning now to ensure a continuity of learning while in-class instruction is suspended,” Fleming said during spring break for almost all public school districts.

What “continuity of learning” will look like is still being worked out by all 60 public school districts, independent schools and the ministry. Teachers returning to work next week are expected to help plan a way to teach students in their homes.

Fleming and BC Teachers’ Federation president Teri Mooring sent a letter to public school teachers Monday that laid out the four guiding principles the ministry, districts, trustees and teachers will use for making plans for the rest of the school year:

1. Ensure students, their families and all employees are working in a healthy and safe environment.

2. Provide supports and services for the children of essential workers.

3. Support vulnerable students who may require additional services.

4. Enable students to continue their education while out of school.

Mass school closures during a pandemic is not unprecedented. Many schools in the United States closed during an outbreak of H1N1 or “swine flu” in 2009. But with many parents still expected to work, and shopping centres and parks still open, it was difficult to keep students learning at home instead of congregating outside.

Switching to online learning, which is already offered for those choosing to study at home or living in rural and remote areas, will likely be part of the plan for ensuring the province’s 575,000 kindergarten to Grade 12 students continue learning during self-isolation.

“Continuity of learning opportunities will look different for different age groups,” the education ministry said in an emailed statement. “We have a very diverse province — that’s why we’re giving schools and local boards the opportunity to develop their own plans that will best meet the needs of students and families in their communities.”

Districts will provide information to parents directly once they have finalized their plans for distance education, the statement said.

In the meantime, here are five points to consider about what the rest of the school year might look like.

One: No graduating student or contract teacher left behind

Any Grade 12 student on track to graduate in June will still receive a diploma, Fleming said last week, while Grade 10 and 11 exams are postponed.

“I want to ensure parents and students that every student will receive a final mark; all students who are on track to move on to the next grade in the fall will do so,” Fleming said on March 17.

In a notice sent to all public school teachers on March 17, BC Teachers’ Federation president Terri Mooring said no teachers working on contract — as opposed to having a permanent teaching position — would lose wages.

What happens to teachers teaching on call (TTOC), also known as substitute teachers, has yet to be determined. Mooring said they would get more information “as soon as we get further information from the federal government on changes to make it easier and quicker to access employment insurance.”

The letter Monday emphasized that districts would continue to be fully funded and people who would be working if not for the pandemic will continue to be paid.

Two: Online learning isn’t equitable

There’s been plenty of research into the benefits and limitations of online learning. One of the main conclusions has been that while some students thrive in an online setting, other students don’t have the self-regulation, organization or motivation to work without a teacher looking over their shoulder.

Blended classrooms, where students have both online and in-class instruction, have been shown to result in academic outcomes similar to traditional in-class instruction. But with schools closed, blended learning may be difficult.

The ministry says it’s trying to remain flexible to meet all districts’ needs. “We’re giving local boards of education the opportunity to create a plan for alternative instruction,” its statement said.

The majority of the province — 93 per cent of households — has speedy at-home internet access. But only a third of rural communities and rural Indigenous communities have access to internet at speeds the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission recommends for work and education.

For students who don’t have the proper equipment at home, the ministry says districts may consider loaning technology like computers to students.

Three: Some supports are easier to replace than others

Some students have multiple special needs that will require districts to think outside the box to ensure they can get the same support at home they were receiving at school.

“Districts and schools are being asked to prioritize vulnerable learners and come up with a plan that protects their health and safety while also maintaining continuity of education services,” the ministry statement said. Districts will try to adhere to a special education student’s individualized education plan, it said.

“Specialist teachers and support staff who typically support students in the school environment will be able to support the student’s learning at home by providing materials specifically designed to meet the child’s individual learning needs.”

University of British Columbia education prof Cay Holbrook said students who require extra supports are still able to do online learning if they have the proper technology at home like refreshable braille readers.

“We’re really trying to look outside the box here and look at what options we have here,” said Holbrook, who researches education for the visually impaired, adding that she’s heard of teachers using video conferencing apps to watch how students position their fingers while reading braille, or to connect students with volunteer tutors.

“We’ve been thrown into this situation in some ways unprepared. But in other ways teachers are amazingly resilient. And some teachers are coming up with ideas for their students that are just really impressive.”

In addition to working on academic plans, Vancouver school district communications staff told The Tyee via email that their district is working on plans to support children, youth and families who depend on public schools for nutritious food.

“We understand the decision to suspend in-classroom lessons impacts students, their families and our staff and are working to minimize those impacts where possible,” read the spokesperson’s email.

Four: Summer learning loss will be greater, especially for poor students

Ten weeks of summer vacation is enough to make anyone forget the quadratic equation or the correct conjugation of French verbs.

But if school as we know it doesn’t come back before September, we can expect kids and youth to lose more of what they learned this year by the time school starts again.

That would have the greatest impact on low-income students.

Times Colonist columnist and retired educator Geoff Johnson wrote last year about summer learning loss, citing a study from the University of California, Los Angeles.

“Students from middle-income families tended to show improvement in reading skills while lower-income students tended to experience loss,” he noted.

But it isn’t just about poverty. Family literacy also affects how much of a student’s skills are lost over the summer.

“The maintenance of literary skills, reading, and even writing can be influenced by family literacy habits,” Johnson wrote, involving factors like whether there are books at home or parents read to their young children.

Five: Try not to stress out

These are uncertain and frightening times. Not only is the immediate future of kindergarten to Grade 12 education up in the air, so is every aspect of the lives of students and their families and friends.

Play dates are over, extra-curricular activities and most sports a thing of the past, and prom and other grad-related events are likely cancelled. Youth graduating this June may well have said goodbye to their classmates for the last time before they went on spring break.

In short, it’s not how anyone imagined their spring going.

“I don’t think we need to see this as an education crisis right now,” said Holbrook, pointing out these two weeks are supposed to be a vacation for students anyway.

But she is concerned about students’ social-emotional needs in a time of self-isolation. “As an educator I’m just worried about the overall impact on students,” she said. “Especially students who are fragile.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Education, Coronavirus

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