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  • Tracy Sherlock

B.C. teachers ask for more teachers, smaller classes to prevent covid-19

Teri Mooring is president of the B.C. Teachers' Federation, which has made recommendations for next year's provincial budget. (Photo provided.)

B.C. teachers are asking the provincial government to hire more teachers so that smaller classes can be in place to allow social distancing to prevent covid-19.

The request was one of 21 recommendations made by the B.C. Teachers’ Federation in its 2021 provincial budget brief to the Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services.

“In these challenging times, British Columbia has an opportunity to make the necessary and pressing improvements to public education that will re-orient public education funding to fully reflect the needs of students, classrooms, and schools as community hubs,” the BCTF brief says. “We must act boldly and for the long-term.”

About half of the recommendations were specific to covid-19, including the one to hire more teachers for smaller classes to accommodate social distancing in schools. Teachers also asked for more funding for health and safety in schools.

“Schools must be safe as workplaces for teachers and all other public education workers, and safe as places of learning for students,” the brief says. “They cannot become vectors of transmission that put students, teachers, parents, and entire communities at risk.”

There are increasing calls for schools to come back full-time in September, particularly for younger students. The unintended effects of keeping children out of school may very well be worse than the effect covid-19 usually has on children, the American Academy of Pediatrics says in its Guidance for School Re-entry.

But to bring children back safely will likely require smaller classes, more teachers and more spaces. And that is going to be expensive. The provincial government already spends $6.6 billion for K-12 education each year and has hired about 4,000 teachers since the teachers’ court win in 2016.

B.C. has not yet updated its fiscal outlook, but Finance Minister Carole James has said “the road ahead is a challenging one.” Deficits are expected for at least the next four years and a fiscal update is expected soon. The federal government predicts a 343.2-billion deficit this year.

While the finances don’t look promising, covid-19 has highlighted the role of schools in the economy – if parents have to look after their kids all day and help them with their homework, it’s difficult for them to also work full-time.

Another covid-related recommendation made by the teachers calls for the province to cover any shortfalls created by a dwindling number of international students this year. Some districts host many international students, using their tuition to supplement their budgets. Teachers would like to see that equalized across the province.

“International students bring much to the diversity of our public education system, but their presence should not be an object of financial competition,” the brief says.

In Vancouver, there were 1,809 international students in K to 12 schools this past year. A projected 35-per-cent reduction in those numbers created a $3.27-million reduction in VSB’s budget and the potential for 20 or 30 teachers to be made surplus. When the VSB passed its budget in June, secretary-treasurer David Green cited international students as its biggest risk.

Teachers also call for funding for the increased use of sick leave and adequate stocks of personal protective equipment for staff and students who want it. Addressing concerns about the mental health effects of the pandemic, teachers want funding to provide a “trauma informed” approach to mental health for both students and staff, including more counsellors and training for teachers.

Teachers urged the government to move faster on the promised universal $10-a-day childcare system in B.C., as well as developing a public $10-per-month internet service.

In non-covid-related recommendations, teachers asked for more stable funding for schools and resources, early identification and more funding for students with special needs and an acceleration of making schools safe in case of an earthquake, among other things. They also ask the province to provide more meal programs, support for community gardens at schools and for other community spaces.

These budget briefs are made every year by concerned groups; they’re rarely heeded in full. However, it never hurts to ask.

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