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Crisis = Opportunity

The pandemic has been revealing in BC. It clearly showed that our long-term care practices needed reform. Everything from how many residents room together to staffing procedures and oversight need to be reconsidered. Similarly, the pandemic has revealed significant issues in the school system. Issues identified include the lack of social distancing, the lack of good ventilation in classrooms and even communication strategies. The role of School Boards, or lack thereof, also raises the question of whether the current model is outdated. Every crisis brings with it an opportunity, and the pandemic is no different. We have an opportunity examine every aspect of both long-term care and education with a view to making each more effective for the clients and the community. We will have more pandemics so we should take this opportunity to modernize these critical aspects of our community. In this blog, I will focus on the education system.

Our education system has survived this pandemic because our teachers put their health at risk to keep schools open. We owe them much but most of all we owe them an assurance that we will be better prepared for the next pandemic. We also need to show them we care by undertaking a careful and thoughtful review of the entire school system with the objective of making it more effective in its everyday operation. Some of the issues that arose were basic operations while others were systemic and complex.

For example, communication was a disaster. It was parents that stepped in to fill the void where Boards and the Government failed. Out of frustration parents created the BC Covid Tracker page because parents were unable to get reliable school exposure information from any other source. As I write this blog another group, BC Parent Info, has launched a survey to gather information to inform safety plans for future pandemics. (I recommend you take the survey here: Why have parents had to fulfill a role clearly earmarked for local elected officials or Government? We need to examine how communication occurs versus how it should occur not only during a pandemic but also during regular school operations. The mask mandate is another example of failed communications. To date I continue to be confused about who has the right to mandate masks because the PHO says she provides only guidance while the local Boards, who have been missing-in-action throughout, claim they must defer to the PHO. Clearly, the communication process needs examination.

The inability to social distance in schools was a major concern. This raises so many issues that need examination within the system. The perennial class size debate is part of this as is the daily functioning of schools and how students are timetabled. We seem stuck in a world than falsely predicates learning as a function of time. It also raises the relationship of school design and its influence on operational structure. We could even lump the ventilation concerns into this examination.

Perhaps the most complex area needing examination is that of governance and the relevance of the one-hundred-year-old model of local School Boards. As mentioned earlier, School Boards were missing in action during this pandemic raising the question: is it time for a change?

Let’s take a brief look at each of these issues and examine some pertinent questions surrounding each.

Mask Mandate: There was a simple solution to this issue. A School Board could have issued a mandate for their district but only one (Qualicum) even came close. The other Boards seem to have gone silent on one of the most critical issues in a school. This issue is simply a symptom of an outdated governance model. School Boards were created one hundred years ago and have become an anachronism in our technological age. Rather than detail the rationale for a new model in this blog, you can read it in a suggestion I made seven years ago. Read it here: Suffice to say changing the governance model would save millions of dollars that could be put back into the classroom, make the schools more relevant to all community members, and through a Municipal council, education could have a more powerful voice on critical issues including in future pandemics.

Social distancing: the layers of protection in the guidelines all put social distancing at the top of the list but for schools we were told it was impossible. It is not impossible! There are many ways to accomplish social distancing. We could simply put the resources into the system to reduce all class sizes to a maximum of fifteen. Under the current education model this would mean that we would have to build more classroom space. Or, we could re-think the model. Our model is built around time rather than learning, yet we know learning is not time dependent and that different students learn at different rates and in different ways. But we are still stuck in the factory model. The pandemic offers an opportunity to rethink the model; a model that would not only enable social distancing but also improve the entire system.

Vancouver School District, at least, got creative with their approach and altered the face-to-face time in the high school grades which helped with social distancing. Now the Ministry, having, already approved their model, is trying to force them to change for purely political purposes. Bureaucracy always resists change. We would not have all day Kindergarten in BC if one district had not defied the Ministry and forced the change. The Ministry has a Minister with no experience in education and a Deputy who has little, having chosen to be a civil servant early in his career. They need to defer to the local school leaders who know the business of education.

Another way we could have had safe social distancing would have been to have students attend on alternate days or we could have used technology much more effectively and implemented more hybrid models. We could have spread students out by having schools open on weekends. Why did we not use more alternatives to protect the health of our children and our staff? Simply because we are stuck in a paradigm built on an agrarian model wherein learning is equated to time spent face-to-face. We need to re-think the whole education model.

In 1973 a high school in North Vancouver was so crowded it had to go to a four-day week for a year, with each grade taking one day off per week. A thorough study done at SFU proved conclusively that the students’ achievement either stayed the same or improved. With a 25% decrease in face-to-face time there was no loss of learning. The falsehoods about students needing to always be in face-to-face classes perpetuated by the government and PHO during the pandemic are just that: falsehoods. We could have created proper social distancing during this pandemic but did not have the political will to do so.

Ventilation: Ventilation again is the symptom of a broken system. The Ministry tightly controls the ability of any school district to construct or renovate buildings within the district. I liken it to the Canadian military whose purchasing processes and priorities endanger our pilots because we refuse to renew our equipment in a timely manner. Improving ventilation is a matter of priorities and the pandemic has demonstrated that we need to make it a higher priority. And we need to always ensure that classrooms have access to fresh air. Again, if we changed our model, reduced the bureaucracy and redundancy, we would have money to apply to those areas that directly affect the classroom.

The pandemic has been a difficult time. Schools were closed in the spring and we appeared to have things under control but the return to school changed everything. From October on we have been in crisis mode and education has been at the forefront. A stubborn PHO and weak School Boards refused to protect teachers with a mask mandate. The teachers were left operating in a failed imposed cohort model and no way of social distancing. Ventilation was a problem in many schools with one Board even screwing windows shut.

Communication was a constant source of frustration to parents and teachers. The vaccines are showing us there is light at the end of the tunnel but we must not just let this crisis pass without taking stock of the opportunity I presented. The pandemic has shown that our system can use a re-think. Everything from how we structure the classes to how we use technology to how the system is governed needs to be examined. Our students and parents need to know the system is as effective as it can be but most of all our teachers should never be put at risk again.

Perhaps it is time for another Royal Commission on Education in this province. Perhaps the examination should take some other form to review the system. What is certain is that the system needs to change. The pandemic crisis made this clear. Will the Government take advantage of this opportunity or will they again leave our teachers in conditions that are unsafe, our students continuing to learn in conditions that are less effective than they can be and our communities with archaic forms of governance?

The time to act is now!

Doug Player, February 28, 2021.

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