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Rights + Justice
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Education
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Coronavirus

BC’s Back to School Plan Will Add $25.6 Million to Support Students

The one-time cash influx is for mental health and other student help. Critics say it might not be enough.

Katie Hyslop 18 Jun 2021 | TheTyee.ca

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

Returning to classrooms full time this fall comes with $43.6 million in Education Ministry spending — $25.6 million of which is new, one-time, COVID-specific spending on mental health, cleaning, safety and support for students.

“We know the pandemic has not only impacted mental health but also impacted learning and educational equity,” Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside said during a press conference held yesterday morning with Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer, Stephanie Higginson, president of the BC School Trustees Association and Andrea Sinclair, president of the BC Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils.

Research has shown students who struggled the most during the pandemic had already required extra support in schools, Whiteside said.

This includes kids living in poverty, with learning disabilities and complex needs, Indigenous students and English language learning students.

“Nothing is more important than addressing inequality and ensuring each and every child reaches their full potential in school,” Whiteside said, adding $18 million of the funding will go towards these students.

Whiteside did not elaborate on how the $43.6 million will be divided among the province’s 60 public school districts, which vary in both student enrolment and need. Split evenly, though, it would mean an additional $727,000 per district.

The final plan for returning to school won’t be released until August, and will be based in part on B.C.’s COVID-19 transmission rates. It will include a decision on whether the mask mandate for students in Grades 4-12 will continue.

Based on current and projected provincial vaccination rates for both adults and children 12 and over, Whiteside and Dr. Henry both anticipate a return to full-time, in-classroom learning in September.

“We are in a very different place right now and we should not expect that things will be the same in September,” Dr. Henry said.

“And that’s because we have safe and effective vaccines, and we prioritized school staff and educators to receive vaccines for that very reason.”

Some of the government’s one-time funding will go towards increased cleaning and safety protocols, including hygiene stations, hiring or reassigning custodian staff to work during school hours and funding provided to districts for new or upgraded ventilation systems and protective personal equipment.

Marcel Marsolais, president of CUPE Local 409 which represents New Westminster’s school custodians, is pleased there will be more money for cleaning services this year.

But he would like to see that funding become permanent to make up for decades of cuts that meant few districts had any daytime custodians leading up to the pandemic.

“We need to get day custodian services back to support children,” he said. In schools that do not have daytime cleaners, he adds, it’s the administrators — who have no relevant training — who pick up the cleaning slack.

Earlier this year the Globe and Mail reported that school districts spent more on cleaning supplies than they did adding or improving ventilation systems in schools, despite the expressed need for such improvements during the pandemic.

Whiteside told reporters that work is currently underway to improve ventilation systems, and a provincial ventilation committee has been convened to identify need and monitor progress.

But BC Teachers’ Federation president Teri Mooring told The Tyee the union wants more money dedicated to upgrading ventilation systems and to interim measures like portable air exchangers for classrooms that need them.

“That’s happening to some degree, but certainly not everywhere,” she said.

In response to a question about whether online learning will continue for students not prepared to return to classrooms full time in the fall, Whiteside says school districts have not been instructed to do this.

Distributed Learning, the province’s pre-COVID online learning program, is an option for those students, she added.

But Distributed Learning is not the same as having an online option from your neighbourhood school, says Nicole Kaler, a parent and treasurer of the BCEdAccess Society, a grassroots advocacy organization for the education of kids with complex needs.

“Distributed Learning, you’re now connected to a different school,” she said, meaning students would no longer be in the same school as the kids in their neighbourhood, nor would they have an in-person classroom they could attend on a part-time basis.

“That was a built-in flexibility because of the pandemic that meant that some kids accessed an education during a pandemic better than they did when there wasn’t a pandemic,” Kaler said.

For Kaler, who is Black, the elephant in the press conference call was the silence around the other events happening during the pandemic: the reignited civil rights movement for Black people, the rise in racist incidents and attacks, and the discovery of the remains of 215 children at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

“I think we’re willing to talk about the trauma around the pandemic because it affects people like those white women and their population,” Kaler said of the press conference speakers.

“The compounding for other groups, that’s important, too. And that it wasn’t mentioned makes me feel like it was not acknowledged.”

Kaler would like to see what the BC Teachers’ Federation has been calling for in terms of more resources and training provided to districts to ensure a trauma-informed approach for returning to classrooms, as well as mandatory anti-racism and anti-oppression training for all district staff and educators.

“The sector has never come together to make bold decisions around certain approaches that need to be used, like a trauma-informed lens, like ensuring that everyone has anti-oppression and anti-racism training. This is the time to do it,” Mooring said.

It would help the education system meet the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action #57, which demands a full education on the history of Indigenous people in Canada, as well as skills-based anti-racism training for all in the public sector, Mooring said, adding the province has already committed to implementing all the calls to action.

A trauma-informed approach to returning to school would mean acknowledging and planning for the fact that everyone’s experience of the pandemic has been different, Mooring said, and so will the impact it has on their behaviour and ability to learn be different.

“Sometimes trauma can manifest in behaviours that we just don’t understand,” she said.

While an official back-to-school plan is still roughly two months away, this is not the first time the province has had to create a unique plan for returning to classrooms.

Last summer, despite meeting for months with a steering committee of educators, administrators and health-care professionals, Mooring says the final plan was designed by people who do not work in classrooms.

“That continues to be an issue,” she said.

“This has been a frustration of ours all along, continues to be a frustration of ours. We just think that it needs to be more led by the educators in the system, the folks that know what will and won’t work in schools.”  [Tyee]

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