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BC Politics

Uncertain Future Looms for BC’s Distance School Option

Parents fear changes to the Distributed Learning model could end important arrangements for kids with complex needs.

Katie Hyslop 21 Jul 2021 |

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

When Ember Sequoia enrolled her son in B.C.’s Distributed Learning model last March, she found the solution to his fear of school.

“He has quite severe anxiety,” said Sequoia, adding her son is on a waitlist for an autism assessment. “It’s something we didn’t realize until he started having trouble in school.”

Kindergarten was difficult, but this past year, while in Grade 1, his problems got worse. Sequoia’s son has little tolerance for frustration and would act out, only to find himself locked alone in the school’s “calm room.”

As his school anxiety increased, Sequoia and her partner decided to enrol him in Distributed Learning, sometimes referred to as distance learning. It’s an alternate education model where parents or community members teach students under the guidance of a certified B.C. teacher.

Since her family made the switch, Sequoia says the difference in her child is remarkable. Where her son struggled in his previous school, his DL teacher is bumping him up a grade level in math, science and English in the fall.

“His confidence has improved, he’s less stressed and more himself,” she said. “There is still trauma to work through, but distance learning has given us our son back. Now we have hope.”

Still, Sequoia worries that changes to the DL program expected next year could harm the progress her son has made.

“The potential disruptive changes are stressful and disheartening to us,” Sequoia said. “We’d have to start over again, which for a kid who’s already had a lot of disruption, would not be great.”

Learning at a student’s own pace

Distributed Learning has existed in B.C. for more than 100 years. Today, there are 53 public and 16 private or independent DL schools serving about 75,000 students provincewide. Enrolment in public DL is free for B.C. residents, while some private schools charge tuition.

DL has a lot in common with homeschooling. Much of the instruction takes place outside a classroom, parents act as educators, there is individualized attention and students work at their own pace.

Where it differs is that students enrolled in a DL school have their education overseen by a certified B.C. teacher. Students take tests, write provincial exams, receive report cards and learn the provincial curriculum.

How DL works is unique to each student and it changes as they get older.

For example, Island Discovery Learning Community, a DL school in the Powell River School District, has approximately 650 students all over B.C., the majority in kindergarten to Grade 7. Learning time is spent however parents and students choose.

“The kids go to dance class, they go to karate class, they do a more academic class with one of our teachers, they learn science with their uncle who’s a scientist at UBC,” explained Allan Saugstad, principal and co-founder of Island Discovery. “They’re learning all over the community and they’re learning at home, they’re learning with teachers.”

High school is different, as students have more choices when it comes to their education. Students can enrol full time in a DL school, which could be entirely online, or they can do a mix of in-person and at-home learning. They can also enrol in a regular school and take one or two DL courses on the side.

Krista Tulloch’s 15-year-old son, for example, takes his core academic courses online through EBUS Academy in the Nechako Lakes School District. But he also enrols in classes through other districts and DL schools, such as Digital Media Academy and an entrepreneur course in North Vancouver where the family lives.

“This year he cross enrolled in an Aviation 12 course out at Langley Education Centre with a pilot who’s designed this Grade 12 course around all the different aspects of the aviation field,” said Tulloch, a special education instructor at Northern Lights College. “We physically went to Langley twice a week for three hours so that he could take this course from January to April.”

Flexible schedules increase freedom

DL is asynchronous learning, meaning students across B.C. have access to the entire curriculum with the freedom to work when they want. Some students take extra courses so they can graduate faster. Others, like those involved in competitive sports, need a flexible schedule.

“We’re working with some hockey students in Vancouver right now,” said Jeff Taylor, principal of Navigate, a DL school based in the Comox Valley. “Hockey kids struggle because they go away for a tournament for a week or two, and they come back and the teachers look at them sideways like, ‘Get your priorities straight, kid.’ Whereas if they go to a DL environment, they work as hard and as fast as they want, because they know they have a two-week tournament coming up.”

Many students have special needs designation — including seven per cent of students in public DL schools, and 25 per cent in private DL schools. In comparison, students with special needs designations make up 12 per cent of public and nine per cent of independent brick-and-mortar school enrolment respectively.

Tracy Humphreys, founder and chair of BCEdAccess, a grassroots education advocacy group representing families of kids with complex needs, says that for many kids, DL is an option of last resort.

“There’s this path that people will follow if they’re having struggles getting support for their kids, or their kids are not learning: they look at all the options out there, and Distributed Learning is a really good one,” she said.

Unlike a regular public school where special needs funding goes into a district pot to hire education assistants or other supports, a DL school spends funding on the individual child. Parents have input on the type of support received, and some schools will subcontract a child’s pre-existing support worker.

This past March, BCEdAccess surveyed more than 450 parents about leaving in-person public education.

Upwards of 50 per cent of respondents had already pulled their children this year, with the majority citing a lack of consistent support. While the pandemic played a role, 37 per cent of parents surveyed said they were already thinking of taking their kids out before COVID-19 hit.

Children from families living with other vulnerabilities, including mental illness, addiction, poverty and homelessness, also choose DL.

John McGregor, business manager of the private Fawkes Academy, which supports children with autism and other complex needs, says the B.C. Ministry of Children and Family Development refers students to them.

“The parents haven’t been able to get the students into a brick-and-mortar school on a consistent basis, so social workers have contacted us and set up programs that work for those families so that their children can continue to be educated,” he said.

Vulnerable youth will be impacted

Changes to DL — being phased-in this school year and fully implemented in 2022-23 — were first proposed as part of the education funding model review in late 2018. Other suggestions for change came from the DL sector itself.

The upcoming changes include:

Critics say the changes — particularly around funding and cross-district enrolment — will result in schools closing down, teachers losing their jobs and students being shut out of life-changing programs.

For example, this past year, Navigate set an enrolment record with 3,000 full-time-equivalent students (meaning the combination of full- and part-time students was equal to 3,000 full-time students).

Yet just 25 per cent of those students were in the Comox Valley. So if Navigate doesn’t receive provincial approval to enrol students who live outside of its district, the 30-year-old school will have to close.

Navigate principal Taylor understands why the government is making changes, agreeing that quality assurance is necessary. But he also expects a significant part of the COVID-19 enrolment bump to continue, meaning a greater demand for DL than before the pandemic.

“Long term, what should happen is that students get an education that has higher oversight, and I think that’s a good thing,” Taylor said.

“Short term, students will be told, ‘This program that you’ve been attached to, it’s shutting down. You’re going to have to go somewhere else.’ Transitions are never good for kids, and there will be that period of transition that people will find alarming.”

Tulloch is concerned that restricting cross-enrolment to a few schools means students like her son won’t be able to explore a range of future career options via elective courses from other districts.

“Yes, they’ll have courses, enough to graduate. But nothing that allows students to pursue areas of interest or find out what they want to do in post-secondary or what they might like to do for work,” she said.

As schools close their doors, public teachers will have to transfer to other schools in their district, which for educators living thousands of kilometres from their home district means moving. Teachers in private or independent schools that close will likely lose their jobs.

What’s more, for students with complex needs who depend on these schools, Humphreys of BCEdAccess says the ministry is removing a viable alternative for families who had nowhere left to go.

“We’ve worked really, really hard for 40-plus years to try and make a more inclusive system, but when you lose all of the kids who are different and who are struggling, then there’s no more diversity in the system and we’re back to 40 years ago,” she said.

Compared to Navigate and other larger DL schools, the independent Fawkes Academy is small with only 56 students. It’s young, too, having added a DL component to its small brick-and-mortar school on invitation from the Education Ministry in 2011.

So McGregor knows that if Fawkes Academy closes its DL school because the majority of students are from outside the catchment area, it won’t have a big impact on the education landscape in B.C.

But that’s not what concerns him. “We do serve some of the most vulnerable students in the province, and unfortunately, those students are the ones who would be impacted,” he said.

Quality and equity the goal, says ministry

The Tyee requested an interview with B.C. Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside, but she was not made available. Instead, a ministry spokesperson sent an emailed statement.

“The goal of the new model is to focus on quality and equity, ensuring that all students in both the public and independent schools are well-supported in programs, that teachers have the tools and resources they need to engage students, and that fragmentation is reduced,” it said.

Though reform has been in the works for more than two years, many parents only learned about these changes this spring — in part because of the ongoing pandemic, which delayed implementation of most changes until July 2022.

Legislation that changed the name of the program to Online Learning passed in March 2020, the same month schools across the province cancelled in-person learning for two months. The legislation came into effect on July 1.

Ministry consultation on the changes included talks with unions and associations representing teachers and administrators, but not parents, students or education advocacy groups such as BCEdAccess.

The ministry is still accepting public feedback.

For parent Krista Tulloch, it seems the government is a little out of touch. “It does feel like just a whole lot of, ‘You do not understand who your constituents are,’” she said of the ministry.

Still, she remains optimistic the changes aren’t set in stone. “I want to believe that the desire to do focus groups and invite feedback is genuine and will be considered.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Education, BC Politics

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