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  • Tracy Sherlock

Class sizes stable in B.C, but teachers concerned about complex classes and covid-19

B.C. Teachers' Federation president Teri Mooring has concerns about the complexity of classes being organized for this fall. (Photo provided.)

Class size and composition are both stable in B.C., but teachers remain concerned, especially with the covid-19 pandemic.

“It is what it is. Our court win definitely helped, but we’ve still got a long way to go. I do have concerns about the coming year, that classes will be more complex… plus we are in the middle of a pandemic and all that entails as far as increased stress levels,” B.C. Teachers’ Federation president Teri Mooring said in an interview.

The $6.6-billion B.C. K-to-12 education budget is up 19.4 per cent since the government was elected, the Education Ministry said in a statement. Education Minister Rob Fleming wasn’t available for comment.

“That investment means B.C. students are now attending the smallest classes in a generation, with more educators and other supports in the classroom,” the statement says.

This year, there are 21,416 classes in B.C. with four or more students with special needs, up from 19,651 last year, statistics posted by the B.C. government show. There are 4.429 classes with seven or more students with special needs, up from 4,183 last year.

Enrolment has been growing, so it’s expected the numbers would rise. However, as a percentage of all classes, the numbers are also going up. This year, 27.8 per cent of all classes have four or more students with special needs, up from 25.6 per cent last year and 23.3 per cent the year before. The percentage of classes with seven or more students with special needs is stable at just over five per cent, the statistics show.

More students are diagnosed each year with special needs, particularly Autism Spectrum Disorder, learning disabilities and serious mental illness, the education ministry said. This past year, 11.8 per cent of students had a diagnosed special need, up slightly from last year.

“Funding has increased along with this growth – next school year, school districts will receive an estimated $627.4 million to support students with special needs, a $162.8-million (35 per cent) increase over what the previous government provided,” the ministry said.

But teachers remain concerned.

“We still have some concerns around our ability to fully meet the needs of all of our students in our classes, due to the fact that we are still dealing with the underfunding and that we are still having trouble attracting enough specialist teachers,” Mooring said. “If it’s difficult to recruit a Grade 5 teacher in Surrey, it’s going to be even more difficult to recruit a highly trained specialist teacher.”

The number of classrooms supported by an education assistant — a trained support worker for students with special needs who is not a teacher — rose by about 1,700 after a similar rise last year, the statistics show.

There are no province-wide rules about the number of special needs students that can be in any one class. While there are provincial standards for class size for kindergarten through Grade 3, class sizes for Grades 4 through 12 are governed by collective agreements, which vary from district to district.

Meanwhile, the covid-19 pandemic is causing stress among educators about what will happen if international students cannot travel to Canada, about a lack of personal protective equipment in schools and about the rapid switch to remote learning and then back to in-class on June 1.

“The environment is high anxiety. Everyone is under a higher level of stress than they normally are, but you couple that with having to make these major, major changes in the last month of school. It’s very understandable that people are feeling quite overwhelmed,” Mooring said.

School districts did not provide personal protective equipment for teachers, a decision Mooring calls “unfortunate.”

“Obviously teachers are free to wear PPE, but PPE is a little bit symbolic too of the employer’s concern about employee wellbeing,” Mooring said.

Masks are not required in schools and other health measures are in place, the Ministry of Education said.

“Wearing a mask is a personal choice, and anyone who chooses to do so will be treated respectfully,” the education ministry says.

School may continue in a hybrid model of in-class and online in the fall, but exactly what that looks like hasn’t been determined and a final decision may not be made until late August.

Teachers are starting to plan for that and it’s extremely complex, Mooring said.

“Contingency plans will obviously need to be put in place, depending on what stage we’re in,” Mooring said. “We have an opportunity to plan for September and that really needs to happen.”

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