Two weeks have past since the BC election and the NDP has a solid majority. Now the hard work begins and there is no bigger priority than the health of our province. The Government needs to focus on both the virus and the opioid crisis. Dealing with the opioid crises requires reducing poverty, improving mental health services and working closely with the municipalities. I hope this situation gets the focused attention it needs. Dealing with the virus requires a different approach. It requires a regional focus that enables each community to support the provincial goals and mandates. It also requires a re-examination of the approach being taken in the school system.
Today, it was announced that we had 425 cases. This number has been climbing for the past three weeks. School exposures and infected children have also been growing for the past three weeks. I remember When Dr. Henry said 25 cases would be “way above my comfort zone”! We can do better and three actions by the government would go a long way to improving the situation.
First, the Government needs to appoint a new Minister of Education. The previous Minister has, in my opinion, lost the support required from the key people who make the system work, the teachers. Among the newly elected MLA’s are some very talented individuals including a number who have had much more experience working directly with the education system. The new Minister must address the ongoing concerns expressed by teachers who fear for their own health. This includes the current mask policy, the ventilation issue in some schools and classrooms and the ongoing concern over physical distancing.
Second, the Government needs to return more authority to the local Boards and Superintendents to communicate with their constituents and to modify their learning model. It is not enough to thank teachers for “playing an extra-ordinary role” as Minister Dix has done in a sincere manner. Teachers are burning out and it is not even Christmas! Under the current model students are reluctant to stay home when sick because the quarter system puts tremendous pressure on students to not fall behind. Combined the stressors impede both the teaching and learning process. The cohorts are about to be remixed with the change of quarter which belies the whole emphasis on the importance of cohorts in the schools. Finally, we are approaching the date that most districts have set as an end to the remote learning offered in the transition program, a life-line for many students.
Thirdly, the government needs to reconsider their current contact tracing and masking policy in schools. Teachers are not currently involved in the contact tracing, yet they are the prime observer of each of their students’ contacts for six hours of the day. It is time to use the teachers’ knowledge in this process. It is also time to implement a mandatory mask policy for grades 4 to 12 when indoors. These individuals must wear masks when indoors at other public places and schools are indoor public places where the current leaning model and government policy has made social distancing impossible. We also know aerosol transmission is a fact. We need to catch up with other jurisdictions who have already instituted mandatory masks and have also performed much better than us on testing.
Solutions are available! In the first case, I expect the Premier will shuffle the cabinet. It will be essential that the education Minister be sufficiently knowledgeable about the system that he/she can hit the ground running. The previous Minister is an experienced cabinet minister and is not without skill so I am sure the Premier will find an appropriate role for him
The second issue requires thoughtful but quick action. Fraser Health and Vancouver Coastal health are very different from the Island Health region. The PHO says that schools reflect what is happening in their community. We need to release School Boards and Superintendents from some of the constraints placed upon them by the provincial emergency order. Boards and Superintendents need to communicate more directly with their community. They were elected or appointed to lead and they need to be able to do that without fear of rebuke by the health authorities. They need to be the ones who are out front when there are exposure issues in their schools. More importantly, the local officials need to re-examine the current learning model.
The Boards and Superintendents need to put pressure on the new Government to create a model that does what the PHO said today. She said we need to “put fewer faces in small places”. There are models that do just that. Some private schools are attending on alternate days, thereby cutting class sizes in half. I have suggested a school model that maintains classes at 15. In both cases the stresses of the quarter system are removed from both teachers and students. However, in both cases, remote learning plays a significant role. Therefore, it is critical that a robust remote learning option is available to all students. This means paying attention to the real access issues that exist in some communities. Many parents feel their pleas for a continuing and improved remote option are falling on deaf ears. These models should be developed on a local level in greater consultation with the staff as they are the individuals who must execute the plan. This could be done in a way that helps reduce the dramatic spread that is happening now. Let’s add two weeks to the Christmas break for students and allow staff to do a complete reset. This would have the benefit of slowing the spread by keeping kids home for a four week period. It would also allow LOCAL plans to be developed locally with learning as the priority but designed for social distancing. The planning could also ensuring remote learning is available.
The third action is solved easily but requires some changes in the approach taken by the PHO. Today she also said: “wear masks when inside”. This makes sense and we also learned from Dr. Tam that those masks should have three layers. So, mandate this in schools for grades four to twelve. Protect our teachers and protect our children! Last weekend children made up over 15% of our 1120 cases. Schools are crowded public buildings; we know masks make a difference, end of story! Also, it is common sense to involve teachers in the contact tracing. They are professionals who know what the children in their classes are doing. It is time this expertise became a tool in improving our approach to tracking the virus as it occurs in schools.
The new Government and the new term offer a golden opportunity to create a new and improved plan for schools during this pandemic. These three actions would go a long way to improving learning and safety for our children.