On Monday three schools will be closed for two weeks. One in Surrey, one in Delta and one in New Westminster. Even worse, we have a beloved elementary music teacher in ICU fighting for her life. As reality strikes, I am hearing from more and more teachers. They are frustrated, angry, fearful, and exhausted!
They are frustrated because the lessons of the spring opening have been ignored and the vital requirement of social distancing in schools has simply been cast aside. They are angry because the PHO and government refuse to mandate masks in schools even when they are proven to be 70% effective in preventing transmission. They are fearful as they see many colleagues contracting the virus and now one is in ICU fighting for her life. They are exhausted from the pressures from a quarter system that was imposed upon them for the sole purpose of contact tracing which in many cases is running up to a week behind. All of this is happening when the case numbers in the province are on a scary upward trend, setting new records every day! (Rumor is that the number yesterday will be north of seven hundred).
Clearly, we are in a bad way provincially. When we were much better off, we allowed people to stay in their cars on ferries, we closed schools to all but children of essential workers and we put an emphasis on social distancing. Due to the election call, Government has been missing in action for the past eight weeks. The Premier needs to act now and he needs to act decisively when it comes to schools.
In the interim, we have learned a lot about this virus. We know it is spread through aerosolized droplets. We know masks work and we know mandating masks works. It worked on our transit system and a recent study from the City of Calgary showed dramatic improvement in mask wearing when they were mandated. We know celebrations like Thanksgiving foster the spread and we know fourteen days of quarantine can reduce the spread. We know exposures in schools are on a rapid rise and, although we have been told the opposite, it has become clear that there is transmission in schools. Finally, it is obvious that schools are a significant contributor to the spread. This conclusion is supported by a major study from India that was published last week and by the current data out of Quebec. Armed with this knowledge, what do we need to do?
First, we need to do our part to slow or stop the spread. Second, with schools closing we need to have a robust remote program available to all children. This program is also required to stop the blackmailing of parents to force their children off the transition program and back into the school building. Third, we need to reduce stress in the system which is at an all time high. It is evident that many of our teachers are at the breaking point and they need relief. Similarly, the pressure of the quarter system is stressing the secondary student who is afraid to even stay home if ill for fear of missing too much content. The younger children are also stressed because the new restrictions mean they cannot even have Grandma’s hugs. Finally, we need to reset the school opening plan and ensure it is designed first to support learning and then to prevent transmission. The question is how do we meet these needs?
Government needs to do the following:
1) Extend Christmas vacation. Schools should close on December 10th. This provides 14 days before Christmas day to quarantine. Assuming each family unit stays in its household bubble then a family should be able to assemble for Christmas day celebrations. Grandparents, who would also quarantine for those fourteen days, should be able to join the family for dinner and hug their grandchildren. If schools opened on January 11th, we will have given enough time after New Year’s to ensure that any spike in cases is unlikely. Giving up sixteen days of school to reduce or stop this spread will save lives and reduce the number of people who may suffer long term effects from this deadly virus.
2) Use this time to build a robust remote program that can be accessed by any student. There are many ways to do this be it through teams of teacher specialists designing remotely or by partnering with a corporation with content experts. The content can be assessed and edited by our own professionals. Perhaps it is simply by expanding the capacity of a current distance learning program. Parents need to have this option as a full time or hybrid option for their children whom they simply want to keep safe.
3) Instruct Districts to develop a new plan that ensures social distancing within the schools. These plans should be submitted by December 14th for approval by the Ministry. The plans should be appropriate for the local circumstances and must include a hybrid option. The plan should be designed for learning without the imposed cohort restriction that forced the choice of the quarter system in so many Districts. There are some plans which ensure social distancing that are currently working well and can continue but most of the urban districts will have to get creative perhaps using different hours and/or hybrid designs. Government may have to provide some additional resources but if done thoughtfully, it will not break the bank.
4) Remove the requirement for teachers to report to work during the Christmas time period. We are trying to stop the spread so the best thing they can do is quarantine and have a break from stress. Knowing teachers, many will do some planning for 2021 so they should be kept informed of the changes to their District's plan. Administrators need to use this time to make the necessary changes to the plan. Maintenance departments should do a deep clean of each school and work to mitigate classrooms with poor ventilation.
5) Immediately inform parents of the decision to extend the Christmas break. The timing enables parents to plan for the change in their children’s schedules. It also allows administrators to develop a timeline to design a better plan for their districts and schools.
6) Mandate the use of masks in schools. Current science supports a mandate and this would be properly exercising the precautionary principle.
7) Modify the year end schedule and exam requirements. The typical practice of dismissing secondary students in the middle of June should be changed. Students should be required to attend until June 25th to make up for the bulk of the time lost at Christmas. The same license for year end assessment given in the first year of the pandemic should be applied to this year. Our teachers are professionals and their assessment of the students at year end should provide the final grades.
We have a deadly virus spreading in our province more rapidly than ever before. Schools are being forced to close and in one case it is because a majority of the staff has been stricken. At another elementary school, a teacher is in ICU fighting for her life. On September 6th I wrote that our teachers had been abandoned and we are now seeing the results. Only by pausing and resetting the school plan can we gain control of the spread of the virus in schools. Our teachers are doing yeoman’s service and it is time we gave them our full support. Doing so is the best way to protect our children and community. Reality has struck and it is time for our newly elected Government to act!