Teacher: Here’s a plan that’d work for back to school

    What we can learn from Calgary

    Burnaby teacher Jennifer Heighton.

    What are we going to do with BC’s back to school plan with all that mixture of outrage and anxiety among teachers and parents?

    Apart from hundreds of threads on social media where the BC plan is being trashed, there are epidemiologists and psychiatrists who urge caution – because the BC plan is grossly imperfect.

    According to an Insights West poll, parents and other BC residents are divided over the province’s plan to send children back to school full-time during a pandemic.

    “Only 49% are in favour of the back to school plan, while 42% oppose it; if they were given a choice, only 27% of parents would choose to have their children in the classroom full-time, 41% would prefer a mix of online and in-person, and 27% would prefer remote online learning only.” – Insights West

    As a teacher for over 20 years in BC, it is clear that the plan is not adequate for several reasons, as I’ve explained before.

    One of the biggest concerns is that the buildings will be at full capacity, meaning that the WHO’s 3-C’s advice is going to be impossible to follow: “avoid crowded places, close contact, and confined spaces.”

    And the Stage 2 plan also ignores that we are in a pandemic situation, and as such, it should provide flexibility to families and staff members.

    What should families do when their child is immunocompromised, or lives with someone who is, like a parent or grandparent? What should families do when grandparents, an at-risk group, help out with after-school childcare, but the children are now exposed to up to 60 families at school?

    What about teachers and EAs (educational assistants) who, because they are immunocompromised themselves, or live with someone who is, are facing the choice of having to risk their health or take an unpaid leave from their job? During a teacher and EA shortage, when we need every trained personnel in the system, more than ever?

    What about single parents, or families where both parents work outside of the home, who cannot do a hybrid model because they need children to be in school for five days per week?

    What about children with disabilities, who sometimes find that crowded settings are triggering, but with the confusion of new protocols, will find the busy schools even more so?

    What about families who do not feel comfortable exposing their child to any risk during a pandemic?

    The government’s solution is not acceptable.

    I’m referring to the “solution” that the BC government has put forth to register children who cannot attend in person in Distance Learning programs (which are full) or homeschool them (which means the parents are on their own).

    DL programs mean that a child will lose their spot at their local school, that school will lose funding, and class sizes in the buildings will still remain large because teachers will be laid off. That does not solve the distancing problem in classrooms.

    So what model could be used instead?

    The Calgary Board of Education has come up with a Hub Online Learning model that could solve many of the problems that BC’s Stage 2 does not address.

    It allows parents choice to either register their child for in-class learning at their local school, or register for the Hub Online Learning program.

    Hub Online Learning is better than DL because the child keeps their spot in their local school, and is grouped with peers from their school or surrounding schools as much as possible.

    The program matches students with a teacher who would only be teaching online.  That solves the problematic model that was used in June, when teachers taught both online and in-class, which was double the workload and not sustainable.

    That teacher could possibly be one who required an accommodation for health reasons.  Instead of forcing those teachers to leave the system, this provides a job that allows the teacher to use their expertise in a safe setting.

    If they choose Hub Online Learning, families need to commit to it until February, when they can opt back into their local school if they wish.  This is good for stability for the classroom teacher and the online teacher, as they build community and get to know their respective sets of students.

    Hub Online Learning is a good option for those families that prefer it and are willing to support their child by ensuring that they are engaged in the program.

    So what happens in the buildings?

    Five days per week in-school learning can still be offered, for those families that need or want it.

    With some students now learning online, class sizes can be smaller for the remaining children, as long as staffing in the buildings is kept as is. Smaller class sizes mean that distancing can happen in classrooms, and there will be less exposure risk with less people in the room for hours at a time.

    Logistical issues like long line ups at sinks and washrooms, and instructional time used to frequently hand wash, will be lessened.  Teaching gym, music, and art classes will be safer and more manageable when trying to distance at the same time.

    Support staff like librarians, music teachers, and TOC’s, all of whom teach multiple classes in multiple cohorts, would be safer due to the reduced capacity in classrooms.

    In addition, Calgary has now mandated masks for all K-12 students and teachers, including on Calgary Transit and school buses.

    Calgary is an example of a jurisdiction that is looking for solutions that match community concerns.  If funded properly, it is a win-win scenario that addresses many issues that have been brought up over the last two weeks.

    As a teacher, having looked at the various models of in-school, hybrid, and online, this is the blended model that looks like a winner.

    So what’s the catch? Why hasn’t BC adopted this plan?

    First, funding.  In order to keep class sizes low under this plan, teachers would need to be hired to take the place of the online teachers.

    However, some of those new teachers would have had to been hired anyway, as immunocompromised teachers who go on leave, because they had no other option, would have had to be replaced. So what’s better, giving the immunocompromised teacher an online job, or removing them from the system altogether? I think the former.

    Having both sets of teachers working is essential to keeping in-building class sizes low. Paying for both wages will be important for this plan to succeed.  At least the online teachers will be able to take a full class size of 22 (Grades 1-3) and 30 (Grades 4-12), to keep costs and new hirings manageable.

    If the BC government spent some of the shortchanged money that they have withheld over the last several years by spending less than the national average, they could easily achieve this.

    The BC government spends $1800 less per student than the national average. To put that into perspective, for a small elementary school of 300 students, that’s over half a million dollars! For one small school. Calculate how much your school is being shortchanged, compared to the rest of Canada. Aren’t BC children worth just as much as other Canadian children?

    The government could choose to give sufficient additional funds to districts to implement an “online choice” plan and then let the districts choose how to operate it. That could include Hub Online for elementary and middle schools, and a hybrid model (the old “Stage 2” of 40% in-school classes) for secondary. And Kindergarten could go back to half days, morning and afternoon, so that children’s first experiences in school can be done with half-class sizes.

    Second, public pressure. Yes, public pressure to change the plan has been good over the last two weeks.  People have rightfully understood that a plan that doesn’t “avoid the 3-C’s” is asking for trouble.

    However, more pressure is needed to promote a plan like this one, so that all families can comfortably be part of the education system, and can send their child to school (virtually or in-class) without worrying about their safety.

    By Susan Chung

    From the government’s point of view, is it worth it to implement and invest in a temporary system like this one? I’d say that avoiding or flattening the second wave, and keeping the economy open for longer, is definitely worth it. Not to mention all of the lives that would be saved, including family members, school staff, and those who suffer long-term effects from a COVID-19 infection.

    If you think that the BC government needs to change their Back to School plan, I encourage you to write to your MLA, Premier John Horgan, Education Minister Rob Fleming, and Finance Minister Carole James.

    Ask that they provide enough funding for both online programming AND smaller class sizes for distancing. Promote the Calgary model if it suits your family. Explain how it will personally help your situation. Your voice counts.

    Changing the plan will be worth it in the long run, for all of BC. Please help make it happen!


    1. Sounds like a good alternative. Choices are sorely missing in the current plan, and there’s no mention of what happens when one of the inputs into the current plan, low community spread, isn’t low any more.

      Are we going to rollback the phases then, at great cost and suffering? Why subject everyone to this huge experiment when it’s clear that people are not listening, as seen by the current case count that’s climbing every day.

    2. Or the BC NDP government could promote the use of the already existing public distributed learning system without threat to families of losing their enrolment in their catchment school, should things ever return to old-normal. Teachers could follow to where the enrolment needs are. BC already has a publicly-funded “hub-online” as Calgary is implementing… just needs to be re-deployed. I will add that independent DLs should not have lost significant funding at this time in history when accessible, quality online education due to the real or perceived need to stay home has never been greater. Blessings.

    3. Excellent article outlining a choice for teachers and students/families. Thank you so much for writing and sharing!

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