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B.C.'s back-to-school plan puts students, teachers at risk

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Image: Feliphe Schiarolli/Unsplash

As a parent, I have almost 12 years of back-to-school seasons under my belt, but this year's will be the most challenging to date. 

As with everything else, COVID-19 has complicated the way governments, school staff and parents will be preparing for a return to the classroom. This school year will be filled with uncertainty and will be like an experiment in many ways.

On July 29, the B.C. government announced a full return to school for September with a plan that took many by surprise. The ministry's plan left our family with many questions as it seemed to contradict the provincial health office's recommendations of wearing masks, practising physical distancing and staying in small social bubbles. 

These contradictions, and the concerns of many teachers, have certainly stoked worries in our household. When the professionals that spend their days in our classrooms question the safety or credibility of the Ministry of Education's return-to-school plan, we need to listen.

On August 12, the ministry released the details of an orientation week for K-12 schools designed to allow staff and students to adjust to the new health and safety measures in place.

Labelled as a "gradual restart," staff are receiving two additional days to prepare, and students will have two days of orientation. This orientation will be the first time many students return to the classroom since March, and offers time to practice new safety routines.

But parents are questioning whether these two days will be enough for children experiencing additional challenges due to the pandemic and those that rely on extra support or services.

As parents know, each school year presents its own challenges for our children. This year will be the first time many parents feel as though they are choosing between health and safety or education and social connection for our kids. 

The fact remains that medical experts are still learning about how COVID-19 affects youth, and this uncertainty creates anxiety among parents.

It has been two weeks since I co-organized Safe September BC with fellow parent and activist Carrie Bercic. Our goal was to encourage concerned parents to unite and share their concerns with education decision makers. We are certainly not alone, with many parents collaborating online to have our concerns recognized.

We have discovered that several common threads connect these back-to-school concerns:

  • Mixed messaging around the use of masks, the importance of physical distancing and keeping social circles small. Many British Columbians have been following these rules, so why is there a new set of rules for our classrooms?

  • Questions around the ability for school districts to ensure social distancing in often overcrowded classrooms, especially since there has been little if any mention of smaller class sizes.

  • Hand hygiene is critical. Will most schools have the facilities and/or supplies on hand to ensure protocols are followed? Let's not even mention the time it will take to complete the task throughout the day.

  • Lack of choice for those who choose to utilize distance learning options temporarily during this pandemic. Many students who choose distance learning options will lose their spot at their current school. 

  • Students have expressed anxiety about the possibility of bringing home COVID-19 from school. This concern is especially prevalent in multigenerational homes or homes where a parent is immuno-suppressed.

As a parent, I agree with our provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry that our schools should open and kids return to the classroom to meet their academic, social and mental health needs. But it is also critically important that they open safely in order to stay open. 

To be blunt, the B.C. plan misses this mark by a wide margin. Learning groups of up to 120 students and no physical distancing or mask requirements within those groups create an environment that is perfect for COVID-19 transmission.  

In B.C., our leaders appear to be basing their return-to-school plan in part on the risky belief that children do not transmit COVID-19 in the same manner that adults do. 

However, recent scientific studies show that children, especially 10-19 year olds, transmit the virus as effectively as adults. Other provincial governments aren't taking this risk and are reducing class sizes to enable physical distancing, mandating mask use and redefining how curriculum will be delivered to students. 

Health Canada states on their website: "it is important to consider that transmission of COVID-19 in children is not fully understood and that evidence may change with time." This is after all an experiment, and I am uncomfortable with a plan that isn't operating with an abundance of caution, especially as we enter the cold/flu season. 

Let's focus on the adults who work in our schools for a moment: are they being protected? These teachers, support staff and administrators are our neighbours, and as we know, adults transmit COVID-19 quite efficiently. The B.C. government's current plan poses a risk to them as well.

This pandemic is certainly placing stress on many systems within our country, and highlighting the many inequities that exist.

One example is our overburdened and underfunded education system, particularly in B.C. We are rushing to get our kids back to the classroom to support parents' return to work and to meet a variety of needs, but we still aren't willing to fund the system even to the Canadian average

We expect our schools to provide childcare, educate and counsel our children, and in some cases feed them, all with inadequate funding. We also expect school staff to return to work in a potentially unsafe environment. 

We are relying on a fractured system and an inconsistent plan to keep our kids safe in school. How does this inspire confidence? How does this create an environment conducive to learning?

Two recent polls would suggest many parents say it does not: 

  • Insights West found only 27 per cent of parents supported sending all children back full time, with the majority wanting either fully online or a blended model. 

  • A recent poll of Canadian families by Leger found anxiety and nervousness about return to school was highest in B.C. at 63 per cent.

So what would make me more comfortable sending my kids back to school? 

  • Masks in classrooms or plastic barriers surrounding desks if masks aren't an option.

  • Smaller class sizes which will enable classrooms to ensure students are physically distanced.

  • Blended learning (in class and online) options for students.

  • Occasional testing to identify asymptomatic carriers.

At the end of the day, each family will have to make the choice that feels right for their kids and unique circumstances. As a family, we haven't decided if our kids will return to their classrooms, and that decision will be made once our school district releases their plans.

Many parents are anxiously awaiting the upcoming news release on August 26, when school districts send out their stage two plans and offer a more complete picture of what the year will look like for students.

One area I am sure we can all agree is that the health and wellbeing of our kids is worth the time it takes to get this school year off to a safe start. Our communities depend on it.

Stacey Wakelin is a grassroots community activist who established BC Families for Inclusivity while also being on the board of directors of Langley Pos-Abilities Society and Triple A Seniors Housing Society. She ran for the NDP in the 2019 federal election in the Langley-Aldergrove riding.

Image: Feliphe Schiarolli/Unsplash

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