“We are just starting this week to take a breath and say, ‘Whoa, what does this look like?’” Stephanie Higginson, president of the B.C. School Trustees Association, said.
“In March when in-class suspension happened, the minister said let’s focus on numeracy and literacy and make sure those skills still transition to next year. But we have to find a way to deliver the full curricular expectations next year in the context that we are in, and it’s going to be tricky.”
Higginson has been appointed to a new education ministry steering committee that will meet through the summer to plan for the 2020-21 school year, along with representatives of teachers, administrators, parents and First Nations. It is anticipated that by mid-August, Education Minister Rob Fleming will determine how many days students will be inside schools in September, based on the status of the coronavirus.
“The minister has said somewhere around August 20 they are going to announce the stage (of return). Our hope is that we can get some information out throughout the summer to allow people to plan,” said Higginson, a Nanaimo-Ladysmith trustee.
“We need students to have a good educational experience next year. And we are trying to make sure we have a good solid plan in place.”
After coronavirus case numbers worsened in mid-March, schools abruptly closed during spring break, leading to a patchwork quilt of online classes and at-home studying — which required a huge learning curve for teachers and resulted in major frustrations for parents forced to help children with homework while also doing their own full-time jobs.
In June, B.C. entered Stage 3 of the education recovery plan, leading to roughly one-third of the 576,000 school-age students returning to classrooms where desks were spaced apart, contact between kids was reduced, and hand washing was mandatory.
Students came back on a very limited basis: Mostly two days a week for Grades K to 5 (40 per cent of this age group attended some classes), and one day a week for Grades 6 to 12 (28 per cent of these older kids showed up). Children of essential services workers and those who needed special supports could attend classes full-time.
The education ministry is preparing “several return to school scenarios” for September, Fleming said last week, and will consult with the provincial health officer and the B.C. Centre for Disease Control. If they agree to enter the next level, Stage 2, it would mean all elementary students will be inside classrooms five days a week, and secondary kids just two days a week.
It is expected schools may reach Stage 1 (all students attend class full-time) at some point in 2020-21 but, because health officials anticipate a second wave of the virus later this year, in-person attendance may be yanked back again due to a COVID-19 resurgence.
Based on interviews with several people working on September’s plan, it appears a wide variety of issues will be up for debate this summer, including: how to deliver 100 per cent of the curriculum if high school students, for example, are in class just 40 per cent of the time; how much online learning will continue, and if there is enough technology to support it; and even potential adjustments to student timetables and course loads.
Should course loads be reduced?
“A lot of districts are talking about if they are not on a semester system, they are looking to at least, perhaps, temporarily go onto a semester system. Some districts are looking at reducing the number of classes a student can take,” said Teri Mooring, president of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation.
“It may be better for students to have fewer subjects to focus on at any given time, and that also might be more streamlined for teachers to teach.”
Mooring, who is also on the government steering committee, hopes students will be back in class full-time in September, but fears that won’t be the case. Therefore, planning for how to teach in September cannot just focus on math, science and languages, but all courses.
“It’s really important that students also experience a broad-based education even if we have blended learning,” she said. “So how do music classes go ahead? How do foods classes go ahead? How does the work experience happen?”
One thing that cannot be repeated in September, she maintained, was the system used in most elementary schools in June: when many BCTF members had to teach a small number of kids in-class while also providing online learning to a larger cohort at home.
“It was completely unsustainable,” Mooring said, adding many teachers worked long days to try to juggle both sets of students.
The experience was also unsustainable for some parents.
Gillian Burnett, a single mother of a daughter in elementary school and a son in high school, has written letters to her local Richmond school district and to the provincial government asking for substantial change in September, compared to what was delivered in June.
Burnett, who works full-time, found she did not have enough time to provide her children with the support they needed during home-schooling in June. And she worries that if high school students only attend classes two days a week in September, her son will miss out on important teaching and curriculum.
“One of the reasons I have such respect for teachers is I know I don’t have the skill set or the patience or the background to actually provide my kids with the education they need,” Burnett said.
Should all classes be livestreamed?
She is lobbying for the lessons taught by all high school teachers to be livestreamed through a secure platform, such as Microsoft Teams, so that the cohort who attends school on Mondays and Tuesdays can watch the rest of the week’s lessons online, and visa versa for the cohort who attends classes at the end of the week.
Burnett does not want another option she has heard is being considered: Teachers providing only in-class learning for Mondays and Tuesdays to one cohort, an online swing day on Wednesdays, and the same in-class lesson delivered to the other cohort on Thursdays and Fridays, leaving students with three days of independent learning at home.
“What really matters is that our kids get instruction full-time. That’s what they need. We cannot have another situation where between 9 and 3 it’s our jobs, while working full-time, to somehow ensure that our kids aren’t missing out,” she said.
The BCTF’s Mooring said ideas such as the one mentioned by Burnett are “all on the table” for the steering committee to consider.
“There certainly are some issues in terms of livestreaming and privacy issues that would have to be resolved, so that is something we are looking at. But making the combination of remote learning and in-class learning manageable for teachers and students is certainly one of the No. 1 priorities,” Mooring said, adding teachers would also need better IT support than they received in June.
Higginson, with the trustees association, did not dismiss the idea, but said there are a few challenges, including the fact that not all areas of the province have sufficient bandwidth and some families struggle with high data charges.
“So to be able to do that kind of synchronous learning where kids are online for two to three hours, that would be very difficult in a lot of parts of our province,” she said.
Among the other ideas being discussed, any decision to reduce course loads for students would be made by the education ministry, and Higginson worries it could disadvantage Grade 12s who might need multiple courses beyond graduation requirements to qualify for post-secondary programs. “It’s an idea that is certainly part of the discussions, but the discussions are just beginning,” she said.
Fleming was not available for an interview, but his ministry said there was no plan to alter course loads “at this time.”
In an email, the ministry also said the goal for September was “to have as many students back in school as safely as possible,” because prolonged time away from attending classes can negatively impact learning.
Even if B.C. schools remain in Stage 3 this fall, the system must do a better job of getting more students to attend as “the schools were vastly empty” in June, Higginson said.
Increasing class time for high schoolers?
And it was clear, she said, that a single day in class each week for secondary schools was simply not sufficient for the academic, emotional and social well-being of most students.
“The one day a week for secondary, I think, was just not enough to accomplish everything we hoped to accomplish,” said Higginson, a former high school teacher. “So we are really looking at that for next year: If we have to be in Stage 3, how do we improve that and is it possible to change that a bit so we can have more time with the kids?”
Among the other questions to firm up this summer is what happens in middle schools if Stage 2 is announced — do Grades 6 and 7 attend school full time while the Grade 8s come only two days a week? And how do portables, a major issue in a city like Surrey, count in the capacity of schools and available space for students?
“We do need to allow for a little bit more tailoring to the needs (of students), while keeping the health and safety standards for the provincial health office in line,” Higginson said.
She hopes that with good social distancing, hand washing and other measures, all students will eventually return to classes at some point next year. It was unfortunate, she said, that one teacher tested positive for the coronavirus at a Fraser Valley private school in June but she argued the existing “health protocols worked” because no one else got sick.
“So far no one else in the school — no students, no staff, no one else — has tested positive,” Higginson said. “We know a lot more than we did in March, and my hope is that we can utilize that to have students who need it to have contact with their teachers.”
Will attendance still be optional?
It is not clear from the education ministry, the trustees or the teachers’ union if Stage 2 would allow parents to continue to choose whether they can send their children to school or not, based on COVID-19 levels, or if attendance would be mandatory on their scheduled days.
While concerned parents can enrol their children in distributed learning or other home-school programs, Higginson stressed that the students remaining in the regular system this fall should attend class during their designated time slots — because it will be too difficult to provide extra online learning to a child who is supposed to be in class.
“If you want your child connected to your home community school, then what you need to do is agree that you are going to be part of the various stages that we are going to be in for the next school year,” she said.
Separate from the provincial steering committee, districts are also doing their own planning, which will be individualized based on their access to the internet and other factors, Higginson said. She singled out the Chilliwack school board for launching an innovative new program that allows students to permanently choose to attend classes for two days and learn from home the other three days starting this September.
A small number of students actually thrived during at-home learning this spring, said Chilliwack assistant superintendent Kirk Savage, so the district created the “Hybrid Learning Program.”
“This is an offering for some kids. It really isn’t for everyone but it might be the right fit for some students and their families,” he said.
Enrolment started Friday, and he estimates 100 of the district’s 14,000 students could take part in the program, which is beginning with students in K to 8. It requires access, if possible, to the internet, a computer, and a parent at home to help with school work and drive kids to extracurricular activities.
Enrolled students would still take part in the school’s sports and field trips, as well have access to learning assistance teachers and other supports.
Savage said some parents may not want to send their children back to class full-time if COVID-19 is still in B.C., and this program is a way to keep the students connected to their schools.
The “silver lining” of the COVID-19 pandemic is that teachers now know how to instruct online, and parents now know how to support their kids at home. “We have this fertile ground to provide learning in a different way. It’s kind of an exciting time,” Savage said.
How to support vulnerable kids?
There were also, of course, many downsides to the pandemic during the school year, among them the strain it took on the psychological well-being of some students, Mooring said. “We have a lot of students who have been through a really difficult time this spring with self-isolation. We have concerns about the mental health of many of our students. So what’s the work that we also need to do in order to ensure the entire student is taught in the fall?”
Mooring also believes that in September schools should supply PPE (personal protective equipment) to teachers who want to use it, and noted some districts initially balked about the use of masks and other districts are still opposed to face shields. “We have a lot of hopes for the summer planning committee that we will be able to resolve these issues.”
Burnett, the mother from Richmond, wishes, though, that parents had a better opportunity to give input during this planning process. “It worries me that this is going to be left until August. That’s too late. If parents are going to have a voice in this, they need to have a voice while that planning is happening. And that planning is happening now.”
Switching to a semester system?
For example, Burnett would also like high schools to switch to a semester system, so students learning partially at home can focus on just four subjects at a time.
“The idea of getting kids to manage eight courses at one time is insane. A lot of them have trouble organizing themselves in the normal context of school, and then you remove all the structure that underpins it and it’s total chaos,” she said.
It is Higginson’s position that it would be “nearly impossible” for a large or medium-sized school district to pivot quickly enough over the summer to change high schools to a semester system, citing timetable and staffing challenges.
In the meantime, said Higginson, the ministry is looking at places such as New Zealand and Australia for tips on how to continue to teach through COVID-19, as students continue to attend classes there because it is winter right now. The ministry says it has spoken to officials in countries such as these about how they are managing issues like health and safety, class scheduling, and online learning.
“They are places that have similar educational outcomes as ours, and aren’t on this long summer break,” Higginson said.
“It will be interesting to see what comes out of all of this, once we have the ability — if we have the ability — to return to some kind of normal.”
K to 12 Restart Plan
Stage 1: K — 12 in class five days a week
Stage 2: K — 7 in class five days a week, 8 — 12 two days
Stage 3: K — 5 in class two or three days a week, 6 — 12 one day
(this is the stage we were in June)
Stage 4: Limited K — 12 in-class instruction
Stage 5: No K — 12 in-class instruction
— Source: Education Ministry
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