Minister Rob Fleming’s news conference yesterday was one of the best examples of obfuscation I have ever seen. Internet chatter confirms that almost all listeners felt that he failed to answer direct questions and left people more confused than ever. In this blog, I thought I would clarify four key issues and offer some practical solutions.
Issue 1: Rule and Guideline changes:
Workplace rules were established by the Public Health Officer (PHO) when the pandemic struck. Above all physical distancing was THE key mitigating factor in concert with keeping one’s bubble small. Restaurants, for example, were limited to 50% capacity, we were told to stay two metres apart in stores, and to restrict your bubble to your household. Schools, in June, had the 50% capacity rule and social distancing was enforced when only 30% of the children showed up. Classes continued for children of essential workers applying these rules. Moreover, the community at large, including teachers and parents, all followed the rules. I have not hugged my kids or my grandkids for six months because they are not in my tiny bubble!
Suddenly the rules have changed, but only for schools. Yet schools are enclosed spaces, with poor ventilation, and with large populations in close contact. Is there any wonder that school staffs and parents are anxious? We know kids seem to suffer less with the virus but we also know they are spreaders, meaning adults in close proximity or immunocompromised family members are clearly at risk. Combine this with the last-minute parameters from the PHO allowing bubbles of 60 and 120 students and community members asked: “how does this make sense”? The explanations that ‘there is always risk’ and ‘we know more about the virus’ were anything but comforting. Finally, when parents learned that they would not even be informed if a member of their child’s class tested positive warning bells went off.
Knowing this background, what is the solution when the government is clearly unwilling to invest the dollars need for full remediation of these concerns. I remind every reader that I believe the teacher has a right to refuse unsafe work, which we know a classroom without physical distancing is. So, my first suggestion is for a teacher to report their classroom as unsafe and refuse the work. There is no penalty for doing so and the action launches a defined process. It would be even better if the BCTF would undertake this action as a unified effort to protect their members and the community. Meantime, we must be prepared to do what we can under the conditions this Government has forced upon us.
Solutions: (partial at best)
a) Additional teachers are available in the supernumerary ranks of many districts. For example, with the massive decrease in international teachers a vice principal of such a program could be assigned to the classroom. Sports academies are supervised by the principal of each school so the Director of Sports Academies could be assigned to a classroom. Every administrative position should be examined to see if it is required for this year; if not, assign that individual to the classroom to reduce class size.
b) Use some of the new-found Federal funding to add personnel to reduce class size
c) The PHO recommends classes outside. We should move all physical education classes outdoors and set up the gyms as classrooms because the larger area allows multiple classes to be physically distanced.
d) Masks should be mandatory in all classrooms because we know masks work.
Issue 2: Remote Learning
I left the last Minister’s press conference totally confused as to whether remote learning had to be offered by each district or not. However, the customer is demanding an alternative so the districts need to respond. Districts could assign their immunocompromised teachers to remote learning to reduce that teacher’s risk. This option would allow parents and students the opportunity to begin remote learning and when their comfort allows move to a hybrid or full face to face model. The Minister said the system would be flexible and nimble, so this is an opportunity to demonstrate that the system is customer focused.
As I stated in a previous blog, many districts have in-house personnel that can train teachers but they would need more preparation time. For those Districts that do not have this resource, there are people like Dr. Valerie Irvine, Assistant Professor of Educational Technology, at the University of Victoria who has very practical ideas on solving this issue on a provincial basis. She reached out to the Minister to offer her assistance but received no reply!
a) Clarify the ministry position on remote learning including funding opportunities.
b) Guarantee this option to every student who wishes to choose it.
c) Consider doing so on a provincial basis so that every district is not duplicating the work.
d) If 70% of the districts are on a quarter system, apply the same to remote learning.
Issue 3: Preparation time
This is leadership 101! Every expert on leadership in organizations says that the leader should offer the most affected parties to a decision, an opportunity to take part in that decision. Many decisions are being made top down including: moving to a quarter system, the organization of one’s classroom, the appropriate placement of barriers, the manner in which students move through a school, the manner in which distancing is handled, the remote delivery of curriculum and many other site unique decisions. Each school needs time take the time to involve their staff in these discussions. Doing so will likely lead to better decisions being made and to developing more buy-in from each staff member.
Time also needs to be allocated for preparation for the actual teaching. In the case of schools moving to the quarter system, teaching will be dramatically different from the year round or semester system. Trying to structure a lesson that will engage students for two hours and twenty minutes is incredibly hard! Teachers need time to share ideas, to design the day and to prepare some actual lessons. If we do not allow this time our children will receive substandard hap hazard offerings.
Similarly, teachers who will offer remote learning need to have time to become familiar with the platform as well as any online repositories available to them. They must have expert instruction the most effective ways to engage students online and the methods that enable lessons to be built efficiently. They need to have time to practice delivery.
The Government has given two days for this preparation which, as I have said previously, is madness! The students will not suffer if we delay school opening to October 1st. This will allow a reasonable time for teachers and staff to ensure that this is not only a safer opening but also an effective opening. This delay will also enable the PHO to observe the spread of the virus that results from the Labour Day long weekend and make any adjustments that might be necessary.
a) Postpone school opening to October 1st for students. Staff will still report on September 8th and undertake the activities above.
Issue 4: Messaging
The message being delivered on the school opening has been an unmitigated disaster. It is fear mongering in the first degree. Both the PHO and the Ministry speak of the damage to children who are not in school to socialize. This data is based on one survey and “hearsay” evidence from other unnamed jurisdictions. They talk of students being out of school for six months. This is all hyperbole and junk science. If we discount weekends, spring break, exam time and summer holidays the students have missed approximately 55 days of school. That hardly amounts to the six months being quoted.
I would suggest the damage done to many kids attending school equals or surpasses any damage from not attending. Consider the young overweight boy who is constantly bullied in the school yard, or the young teenage girl who is being pressured by her peers to engage in sex because ‘they all do it!’ What about the older teen girl who is rejected daily by her peers and turns to bulimia or the teen being pressured to take drugs or join a gang. Think of the pain of the first nation’s child who fears every day, as he takes his hour and a half bus ride to a school, where he will have to deal with the systemic racism in the system!
I suspect statistics will point to far more suicides occurring in students who suffer while attending school than those who do not attend. The fear message being pushed by this Ministry is unwarranted, unsubstantiated and appears to be designed to support their political objectives.
a) Officials need to stop the fear mongering and focus on positive approaches to opening schools safely.
The other bullying of parents that needs to end is the Superintendents’ threat to parents that a child’s place in a school will be lost if the parent chooses initially to keep them home or on a remote learning option. This threat is stated in many of the district plans. This kind of edict does not build community or confidence in the system and simply raises the stress on children and their parents.
a)Each School Board needs to direct their Superintendent to ensure that no student will lose their place in their current school no matter what option they choose. The Ministry needs to guarantee the funding for that child will remain with the district. School District # 64 (Gulf Islands) sets a much better example in their plan.
Finally, the Minister’s messaging must become succinct and clear. His last news conference caused more confusion among teachers and parents who felt he did not answer the questions asked. Quite frankly, he may benefit viewing how the Governor of New York garnered 80% positive response by presenting facts and going on to answer questions with clarity and in a factual manner.
a) Cabinet shuffle?!
There are many other issues associated with schools opening such as poor ventilation. The cost of renewing a ventilation system as well as the disruption at this time of year make such a solution prohibitive. I know because I had to do it when the Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal was built. It cost $750,000 to do Gleneagles Elementary and it took all summer. There is also the issue of using plexiglass barriers. This should not be discounted. Perhaps some of the Federal money could be put to good use by installing more barriers. This could benefit our economy as well. I believe site-based teachers in their meetings in September would identify even more issues and offer some brilliant solutions.
However, at present, we are like lemmings directed by the Government and PHO to run directly to the sea! The solutions above are offered in hopes of pausing that run and creating the opportunity for a more successful school opening than I see happening with the current plan.
Copywrite, Doug Player, August 28, 2020.