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How’s BC’s Plan for Closed Schools Working? This Is Our Report, Now Send Us Yours

Educators say they are striving to deliver ‘continuity of learning.’ (What’s it been like for you?)

Katie Hyslop 28 Apr

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

Hello. What’s your experience of life after school closures, as a student, parent or teacher? We’d like to share stories from The Tyee community about how it’s going, how you’re feeling, what you need. Send an email to [email protected]. More about this at the end of this piece.

It’s been six weeks since Education Minister Rob Fleming announced the province’s schools would be closed indefinitely and promised “continuity of learning” for the province’s almost 600,000 students.

School districts have been working to make that happen since then.

Parents were warned the process may seem slow. And it’s only now that most school districts have moved beyond supporting students and begun to focus on ensuring students have “true access” to education.

Janet Meyer, acting superintendent for the Coast Mountains School District, said the decision not to rush was deliberate.

“We took very much a ‘slow and steady wins the race’ sort of approach with our staff,” she said. “It was very much ‘let’s do it slowly, let’s do it correctly, and most importantly, let’s do it together.’ Because it’s together that we will be successful.”

The province set four principles for public, independent and First Nations’ schools to follow in designing their new systems to educate students staying home.

1. Maintain a healthy and safe environment for all students, families and employees.

2. Provide the services needed to support children of our essential workers.

3. Support vulnerable students who may need special assistance.

4. Provide continuity of educational opportunities for all students.

Schools have finally moved into the instruction stage, says BC Teachers’ Federation president Teri Mooring.

“It’s certainly not perfect,” she said. “But I would say we’re out of the ‘going from crisis to crisis’ stage, and... making sure our students have true access — in the really broad sense — to their education.”

Last week provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said some students may return to in-class instruction before the end of the school year.

The Tyee took a look at how the province has met these four education guidelines while establishing schooling at home.

A healthy and safe environment for students, families and employees

When representatives from 131 First Nations schools and the board of the First Nations Schools Association of British Columbia had their first conference call after classes were cancelled on March 17, their biggest concerns were around what “continuous learning” meant and how they would provide it.

But when teachers began calling students after spring break ended priorities changed, said association president Edith Loring-Kuhanga.

“What they found was the huge issues that were on everybody’s mind so quickly was food security, because many of our schools provide breakfast and lunch programs for our children,” said Loring-Kuhanga. Schools quickly prioritized providing food to families, whether it was through grocery hampers, gift cards or prepared meals.

The province dedicated the first week back from spring break as a time for teachers — and in some cases family support workers and education assistants — to connect with students and determine their health and safety needs.

Since then public districts have delivered more than 76,000 meals to 16,000 families, while 25 private schools are providing 752 meals per week to students and their families.

In an email to The Tyee a ministry spokesperson said they don’t have numbers on previous school meal program use. The “vast majority” of districts have reported an increase in families who require food and many districts have partnered with outside community agencies to provide increased support, the statement said.

Before the pandemic, the Surrey and Vancouver school districts alone were providing meals to about 5,100 students a day.

Like the First Nations’ schools, “meals” from both public and private schools come in the form of prepared meals, grocery hampers and gift cards.

Mooring said remote learning plans took second place to immediate needs.

“Health and safety, support for vulnerable students, childcare for essential service workers — those were all higher priorities, initially, than the emergency and remote learning was,” she said. “There was a lot of work that districts and teachers have been doing to get all that going. And that has been quite incredible.”

Loring-Kuhanga said that after food, student and family mental health needs are the most pressing concern.

“The biggest thing for me, right now, is my concern for those children and families that are really vulnerable,” she said. “The impact of the stress and anxiety — that they already have in their families — and then this is added. The longer that we are out of school, the harder this is going to be on those families.”

Many First Nations schools don’t have access to school or community counsellors. Instead Elders and knowledge keepers are supporting families and students struggling mentally, emotionally or physically during the pandemic.

At Stein Valley Nlakapamux School in Lytton, where Loring-Kuhanga is the administrator, the student-family advocate contacted students and their families.

“Once all of the teachers reached out to their students, then it was her job to do the followup, along with our knowledge keepers, our Elders, providing ongoing support and referrals to outside community agencies,” she said, adding the school has changed to a four-day week to give staff a day to care for themselves and their families.

When classes were suspended, Tracy Humphreys’ immediate concern was the mental health of students and their families.

“For some families, the risk of COVID-19 is not as high as the risk of abuse in their household or self-harm,” said Humphreys, a mother of three kids with disabilities, and founder and chair of BCEdAccess Society, a grassroots advocacy group for parents of students with disabilities and complex learning needs.

Humphreys reached out to the province with her pandemic concerns.

“I said, ‘number one issue is mental health, and I need communication to schools and districts that that’s top of mind,’” she said.

“And they absolutely did — all of the contacts that families got, that was one of the first things the teacher would ask about. Not ‘what can we do for you school-wise?’ but ‘how are you doing? What do you need?’ That was a really, really positive response.”

Kindergarten to Grade 12 students in B.C. have access to mental health help through school counsellors, where they exist; online mental health toolkits; a 24-7 crisis hotline; and new online counselling services for youth 12 to 24 through Foundry, a network of publicly funded youth mental health and addiction clinics in B.C.

Provide services to support children of essential workers

Children 12 or younger whose parents are considered “essential” workers during the pandemic — in particular health care, justice, emergency response and social service workers — are still going to physical school buildings so their parents can go to work. The Globe and Mail reported Friday that 2,300 school-aged children of essential workers are currently receiving this child care.

Fleming said the goal is to increase the number of children participating.

“That’s looking to expand in the days and weeks ahead to other essential workers under the Emergency Management Act,” he said. Some districts, like Sea-to-Sky, are also offering before and after-school care, taking kids for up to 11 hours every weekday, he added.

BCTF's Mooring said the programs are province wide, although they differ from district to district.

“That has been a huge accomplishment, as far as I’m concerned. We’ve not done something like that before, and every single school district has something rolled out now.”

Some districts are using education assistants, who normally work to support students with special needs, to provide childcare for kids of essential workers.

Fleming says not all districts assign education assistants to work one-on-one with an individual student, so the loss of an education assistant should be manageable. Those families who have lost their education assistants are reaching out to their principals and superintendents for assistance, he added.

“Everyone’s trying to make things work,” Fleming said. “To create a virtual, remote learning environment is very, very difficult.”

But Humphreys said a BCEdAccess Society survey has revealed problems with the approach.

On April 8 — 10 days after classes resumed following spring break and three weeks after in-person classes were suspended — the society surveyed parents of 209 B.C. students with special needs. They represented all grades, 35 school districts, some independent online and brick-and-mortar schools and homeschooling households.

While nearly 90 per cent of respondents had heard from their child’s district by then, the survey showed fewer than 30 per cent had heard from their child’s education assistant.

“That is something that’s desperately needed for these kids, for their mental health: feeling disconnected from everything and all of their supports has been really, really hard on them,” said Humphreys. Some parents have said their child’s education assistant has since reached out, she added.

Support vulnerable students who may need special assistance

There were pleasant surprises in the survey, Humphreys notes. Almost 90 per cent had heard from their district by April 8, and close to 60 per cent had been offered educational support for their children.

The ministry has been very proactive in responding to BCEdAccess Society’s concerns over remote learning, she said.

“So hearing all the positive was really wonderful, because it tells me that there’s a really big effort going on in schools and districts to try to really help families, particularly the families who were struggling before.”

Some districts, in addition to setting up virtual or phone meetings, are setting up in-person, physically distanced meetings between students with special needs and their education assistants in public places like parks. Other teachers are recording short videos of them reading stories, or breaking down a math problem, to help students learn at home.

“There’s some emerging practices that are helpful and supported by the school leadership and the families,” Fleming said.

For First Nations’ schools in the province, support for students with extra needs currently involves telephone or video sessions with specialists like speech language therapists, or teachers and education assistants. Schools are working to ensure students have access to the technology and apps required to do their work, Loring-Kuhanga said.

She said her school is looking at whether it’s possible to bring the students to school on a part-time basis.

“One of the issues with some of our students is the social distancing, having a difficult time with them adhering to social distance.”

Private schools are offering similar support to students with additional needs, said Shawn Chisholm, executive director of the Federation of Independent School Associations in B.C.

“Those students with greater needs, more resources have been set aside for them. So there’s greater contact and supports with those vulnerable learners,” he said.

Some have gone above and beyond. The Duncan Christian School in Duncan has modified a bus to allow physical distancing so it can pick up some students — one family at a time, disinfecting the seats between each trip — who need in-person support or are children of essential workers and bring them to school.

“They had a reasonably large vulnerable student population who had struggled with transportation — they’re living 30 kilometres from the school and would normally catch a bus,” Chisholm said. “They’ve been very supportive.”

But there were also worrying findings in the BCEdAccess Society survey. By April 8 only 20 per cent of respondents had been offered support from an educational assistant and only 12 per cent were offered mental health resources.

Humphreys said support can differ wildly within a district, from school to school, and even teacher to teacher.

For example, one mom of a child with executive function disorder, which affects children’s ability to organize materials and set schedules, told BCEdAccess Society last week that her school denied her request for extra assistance for her child.

“Just as one accommodation, if there was an assignment, they would need it broken down into very small steps to make it more accessible,” Humphreys said. “They would need to know exactly what the assignment should look like when it’s done; they should know the timeline.”

“What I’m seeing in some districts is we’re still doing ‘special education,’ we’re not doing ‘inclusive education,’” she said. “In ‘inclusive education’ we consider the needs of all students at the same time. But here it looks like they rolled out learning for ‘typical students’ and then started thinking about the students with disabilities after the fact.”

“It just really made me sad, because we’re supposed to be beyond that.”

851px version of schools-closed-secondary.jpg
Shift to home schooling, online learning still 'a work in progress.' Image by Виктория Бородинова via Pixabay.

Provide continuity of educational opportunities for all students

Despite the presence of some students in classrooms, the vast majority of learning and planning in B.C. education is happening online.

But because it was the last among the four guiding principles, for a lot of students learning has barely begun.

Educators and ministry officials say a lot has been happening behind the scenes.

“We created centralized directives in consultation with all of our delivery partners from day one,” said Fleming. Partners included districts, the teachers’ union, school administrators and independent schools.

“We have given very high level guidance, created centralized provincial resources, including a learning and teaching framework that has been in the field for several weeks now.”

On March 27, the last day of spring break for most students, the ministry launched Keep Learning BC, a website for students and parents with free education resources, at-home learning activities and tips for staying safe and healthy during the pandemic.

“That ordinarily would take a government months to create,” Fleming said of the site. “We put that up within four to five days of development.”

The province gave districts a lot of leeway in crafting their own education plans.

Which has been positive, said the Coast Mountain School District’s Meyer.

“We were given the licence to innovate, which means we were given the opportunity to provide continuity of learning to our students as we saw fit based on our demographics and our communities,” said Meyer. The district serves just under 4,500 students — half of them First Nations — in an area of northwest B.C. roughly the size of Finland.

“Our communities are very distinctly different, therefore the continuity of learning looks different in those communities. And that’s OK, that’s a good thing.”

While teachers were reaching out to families, they were also collecting information on the technology and internet access at home.

The province estimates over 23,000 devices, from laptops and tablets to electronic learning devices for students with disabilities, have been lent out to families and students who lacked adequate access to technology at home. First Nations and independent schools have also lent equipment.

Most B.C. households have access to high-speed internet rates considered adequate for at home learning by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. But up to a third of Indigenous and rural communities in B.C. lack that access.

On Friday, Citizens Services Minister Anne Kang announced a portion of the $50-million funding for the Connecting British Columbia program will be used to provide up to $50,000 to internet service providers that can upgrade or expand services to rural and remote Indigenous communities by June 30. That’s five days after public school students start summer vacation.

Some districts, like Vernon, Coast Mountains and Kamloops, are working with local First Nation band councils to ensure students have adequate internet access either at home or at the band office, with appropriate physical distancing guidelines in place for the latter. Some of the funding for that has come from Jordan’s Principle, a federal program for improving access to health, education and social services for First Nations kids living in their home communities.

Stein Valley Nlakapamux School is covering the cost of installation and internet access for the first couple of months for students who need it, said Loring-Kuhanga, in addition to lending out laptops and iPads.

For students who don’t have internet access or do not like online learning, schools are sending home printed resources for students to learn from. Some First Nations’ schools have ordered new curriculum books — covering four core subjects for a grade in one book — to replace a bunch of textbooks for different subjects, said Loring-Kuhanga.

Not all educators and learners have the same technological skills. While some districts have limited teachers to one or two online communication and organization platforms, like Microsoft Teams, others have set no limits, making the learning curve steep and a bit complicated for all involved.

“We want to make sure that everyone’s truly accessing their education, and we know that’s still a work in progress,” said Mooring, adding the longer school happens remotely, the better it will get. “Teachers are solely dedicated to making sure that happens. In some cases that’s a little more straightforward than others.”

For Cindy Daglish, who has two children in French immersion in Surrey, learning from home has required some tweaks and a lot of patience, but it has already improved. Now both her Grade 2 and Grade 6 kids have settled into a groove.

“My Grade 6 gets a chart at the beginning of every week, and she is to walk through it and make sure she’s doing all the tasks that she’s been assigned, and she’s doing meetings on average about two to three times a week,” she said.

“My Grade 2 on the other hand, she is given a lot of optional activities, of which some get done and some do not, because her motivations are very different. But she is also getting learning support for reading.”

Surrey, the province’s largest school district, estimates more than half of its 76,000 students are attending at least one virtual meeting with their teachers every week. Many are meeting several times a week or even daily, the district says. While printed resources are available and have been delivered to families, the vast majority of instruction is taking place online. The district has set up 45 WiFi hotspots for students without internet access, in addition to lending out computers and tablets.

“Our district is committed to ensuring all students can continue to learn and have equal opportunities when learning from home,” a district spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

Accountability for remote learning falls to the districts. Fleming says measures include twice weekly self-reporting from districts, a deputy minister’s twice weekly bulletin to education stakeholders and a lot of phone calls.

“Every level of the ministry of education, from the deputy minister’s to my office, to key branches of the ministry, are regularly checking in with districts, asking them to report back on some of the things that are in our four core principles,” Fleming said.

DEAR TYEE READER: As we mentioned at the top, we’d love to know your experience of life after school closures, as a student, parent or teacher. We aim to share stories from The Tyee community about how it’s going, how you’re feeling, what additional supports you wish you had. We can learn from each other.

Send an email message to [email protected], not more than 350 words long, to share your experiences. We don’t need to use your name, although contact information would be useful. We won’t run all responses and we’ll likely do light editing, but promise to ensure the content reflects your thoughts and words.

Then we’ll share the responses in a coming story.  [Tyee]

Read more: Education, Coronavirus

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