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Rights + Justice
BC Politics

Will BC Pass Its Back-to-School Test?

Students have the option of returning to classrooms Monday. The government and their union says it will work, but some teachers aren’t so sure.

Katie Hyslop 29 May 2020 |

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

After nine weeks of remote learning, B.C.’s Education Ministry is expecting 20 to 80 per cent of the province’s 600,000 school-aged kids to return to the classroom Monday for the final month of the school year.

But it won’t look anything like school did before: no more than half of kindergarten to Grade 5 students and 20 per cent of Grade 6 to 12 students will be in the school at one time; students may have different teachers; classes will only be a few hours per week; and classrooms will have a very limited number of students.

But the uncertainty about how many students are returning, how staff can ensure students socially distance, how clean schools will be and whether staff with pre-existing conditions can work from home are fuelling teachers’ anxieties.

All 60 school districts have submitted their plans for returning to in-class instruction, the ministry says, and it’s working with some districts to refine them.

Every school was required to have its reopening plan approved by the district before sharing the approved plans with parents this week.

But as of Thursday, some schools had yet to share their plans with parents.

Surrey high school teacher Lizanne Foster said all the unknowns are adding to teachers’ concerns over returning to classrooms, in part because the Education Ministry does not have a history of valuing teachers or students, she said.

“There’s no COVID-19 fund that’s going to districts to help them clean schools,” said Foster, referring to the lack of additional funding for districts during the pandemic. “For years teachers have been all over social media talking about the impacts of cuts to custodial staff, and the lack of investment in the maintenance of school buildings.”

Prior to the pandemic B.C. elementary schools didn’t have daytime custodians, while high schools typically had just one, as boards struggled to balance their budgets with what they said was inadequate provincial funding.

BC Teachers’ Federation president Teri Mooring said that while districts have been reinstating many of those positions since the province declared a public health emergency on March 17, teachers have a lot of recent experience with dirty schools.

Education underfunding “led to schools not being very clean places, and things like not having soap in the soap dispensers,” she said.

But now the province and provincial public health officials have strict rules districts and schools must follow to ensure health and safety, Mooring said.

These include staggering classes and bathroom visits, limiting the number of students per class and in the school, and regular building disinfecting and deep cleans.

“If there’s deficits, districts are being told to fix them,” Mooring said. “We fully expect that districts will rise to that challenge, will make sure that all the measures that are expected to be put in place are in place. And if that doesn’t happen, we have school-based oversight.”

A very different school day

When Foster goes back to her Surrey high school next week, things will be much different.

Before the pandemic the schedule was based on four 77-minute classes per day.

Now there will be five 63-minute classes with no more than six students per class. Students who choose to return will only attend one class per day, and the school will be closed for deep cleaning on Wednesdays.

The exception will be students with complex needs who have the option of attending school full-time four days a week.

If teachers have no students for a scheduled class, they are to use that time for remote learning with students who have chosen not to return to class.

Every school will have its own plan, based on government guidelines, although full-time schooling for students with special needs is province-wide.

Foster doesn’t think the province’s return to school will work for teachers.

“It’s already hard,” she said. “It’s going to be impossible. Some teachers are talking about going on leave rather than burning themselves out by trying to do the impossible.”

Some teachers have reported their requests for accommodation because pre-existing conditions that leave them susceptible to COVID-19 infection have been denied.

Foster, who is 59 and has asthma, is waiting to hear back about her own request to work no more than an hour per day in the school while continuing to spend the rest of the day working remotely from home.

Mooring says about 10 per cent of school employees, including teachers, have requested accommodations. It’s not an unreasonable or surprising number, she said.

“We are working through them,” Mooring said, adding the ministry has advised districts to work directly with union locals on employee accommodations.

In an emailed statement to The Tyee, a ministry spokesperson said accommodations for teachers with pre-existing conditions are possible.

“We expect school districts will work to accommodate staff who have underlying health conditions or other matters impacting their ability to work within existing human resources policies,” the statement read.

But Foster says teachers who are denied requests to work from home because of COVID-19 risks may end up taking legal action.

Questions still remain

In addition to normal cleaning and regular deep cleans, the BC Centre for Disease Control recommends high touch areas — including desks, doorknobs, handrails, light switches, washrooms and toys — be disinfected at least twice daily.

Some teachers have reported they are being asked to do some of that disinfecting themselves.

But Mooring says they won’t be doing the custodian’s job.

“Teachers are not custodians, and teachers are not going to be expected to wipe down students’ desks, do washrooms, anything like that,” she said.

“But we’ve asked for sanitary wipes, and in some cases I know it’s disinfecting spray that’s being provided. Certainly they’ll probably do their own desks.”

But it’s not clear who will be providing that extra level of disinfecting.

Marcel Marsolais, president of CUPE Local 409 representing school custodians in New Westminster, says the newly reinstated daytime custodians can’t do it all on top of their regular duties. They’ll need help from their colleagues like bus drivers, attendants and other CUPE school staff who may have spare time in the day to disinfect, he said.

“Others may assist with that frequent cleaning, but school districts are going to have to look at their budgets, specifically any earmarked funds for COVID-19 have to be put towards increasing custodial hours at every school,” he said. Night custodians will do deep cleans too, he added.

Mooring says school and district-based health and safety committees, which include teachers, will also provide oversight to ensure plans are fully implemented.

Managing remote and in-class instruction

Since in-class learning was suspended on March 17 teachers have been working 12- to 14-hour days redesigning lessons, learning new online platforms, meeting with students, talking to parents, supporting vulnerable students and those with complex needs and teaching classes, said Mooring.

“Also overlay all the stress and anxiety of living through a pandemic and supporting students who have emotional needs,” she said. “And now we’re asking them to come back into schools, and, I would say, that’s even more challenging than taking everything remotely.”

Mooring said the union is strongly advocating that in-class teachers are not also teaching remotely. “There’s a limit to what we can ask our teachers.”

Patrick Parkes, who teaches high school in Burnaby, won’t be sending his seven-year-old son back to school in New Westminster because he doesn’t believe it’s safe. He doesn’t think anyone should be headed back to school in a pandemic.

“I’m not impressed. I don’t understand why there’s a rush to go back to school,” he said. Districts are wasting resources on co-ordinating a return to school so soon after switching to remote learning, he added.

When Premier John Horgan announced a return to classes earlier this month, he said it would be “welcome news for many families who have struggled to adjust to remote and online learning, and for parents who are going back to work.”

But Parkes said it doesn’t make academic sense to go back for June, one of the least productive months of the school year.

“Kids, they want to be outside. The school year is winding down. I don’t think it serves any educational purpose,” he said.

“Our government’s view of public schools is basically [that] it’s a daycare system. I don’t feel our government really values education. Teachers are overworked, and it’s virtually impossible for us to do our best work.”

Mooring is more optimistic about how next week will go. But she acknowledges the outcome depends on a series of unknown variables, including how many parents will actually send their children back to school.

“It’s hard to guarantee teachers, ‘OK, this is exactly what it’s going to look like when you come back,’ because it’s unknown and could possibly change.”  [Tyee]

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