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  • Tracy Sherlock

Horgan, Wilkinson trade barbs over back-to-school plan

Premier John Horgan speaking about the covid-19 pandemic. (B.C. government photo)

Premier John Horgan and opposition leader Andrew Wilkinson exchanged some heated words on Friday about the province’s back-to-school plans.

B.C. Liberal leader Wilkinson kicked it off, referring to an opinion article in the Province newspaper that calls on the government to offer options to families to study online, as has been requested by the more than 30,000 people who have signed an online petition.

“The new school policy is at odds with everything we know so far about the science of COVID,” says the oped written by two professors, Gary Markus and Karen Bakker. “Compelling this level of risk among our children, their teachers, and their families, when B.C. cases have been rising steadily for two months, is unconscionable.”

Wilkinson also mentions a protest by about 30 parents held in front of Health Minister Adrian Dix’s office on Friday.

“What on Earth has happened that it takes demonstrations from parents in the streets to bring to attention this obvious issue of providing for remote learning — and more than just the platitudes of the Education Minister,” Wilkinson asked. “This is remote learning for any child who wants it and for the parents who need and want it. Why has it not been prepared for? Why is it not being offered?”

Horgan said the government is still trying to find the best way forward.

We have stakeholder groups across the province that include parents, that include teachers, that include the administrators and others that I've made reference to, all trying to find the way forward, trying to find that balance,” Horgan said. “If it's a hybrid balance, that's where we'll go.”

Horgan mentioned the $45 million the province is adding to the education budget for personal protective equipment for students and teachers and for enhanced cleaning and said technology is not strong enough in Northern B.C. for online learning.

Wilkinson called that an “excuse” and said the results of sending all children to school full-time, in-person could be catastrophic.

“The concern we all have is it's pretty clear that this fall, as the number of cases increases, people are going to die,” Wilkinson said. “And it is so unnecessary for students to be vectors and conduits for disease when they could be learning remotely instead of exposing themselves and others to the risks of a lethal virus.”

And then later: “You could've solved this problem. It's incumbent on you to solve it before grandparents die and before people are knocked out of the workforce by illness and students abandon schools by the tens of thousands. It's your responsibility. What are you going to do?”

Horgan responded, saying the government will modify and improve the plan as new information comes forward.

“There are going to be those who just will not want to participate, and that is absolutely their right,” Horgan said. “There will be concessions and whatever attempts we can make to ensure that the children are getting the services that they need in a way that is comfortable for parents.”

The next part I’m going to quote verbatim from the Hansard record:

Wilkinson: Did I just hear the Premier say that parents who do not feel safe sending their children to school will be offered distance learning? Yes or no?

Horgan: Thank you. There is home schooling. There are distance learning opportunities. Seventy-some organizations offer that that exist now. It will exist during the pandemic.

Wilkinson: Well, that is probably the biggest insult to a million parents I've heard in British Columbia this year.


Wilkinson: And now the pugnacious Premier is calling me out for telling the truth. Mr. Chair, the Premier seems to want to step in the hallway to have a dispute.


Mr. Chair: The member has the floor, please.

A. Wilkinson: But we are here to solve problem in front of the people of British Columbia, on the record. The Premier says pull your child out of school for home schooling. That's not credible or sensible as a response.

The pair then squabble over the budget for distance learning.

Eventually, Horgan says “I'm committed to making sure that if parents need distance learning, we'll find the resources to put it in place.”

Wilkinson asked Horgan if there is capacity in distance learning if all of the students in B.C. decide to go that route. Horgan replied that not every family is the same, but that the government will do their best to make sure distance learning is available for the people who want it and classrooms are available for the people who want that.

Wilkinson called Horgan’s answer “vacuous.”

“Current government policy requires that the parents and the children stay in their public school and go to in-person classes or withdraw completely from that bricks-and-mortar school and go to independent distance learning or home-schooling,” Wilkinson said, adding that distance learning schools don’t have the capacity.

“This creates a false choice for parents: either stick with the bricks-and-mortar school where you have no choice but to attend in person or withdraw from that school and desperately try to sign up for independent distance learning, which is underfunded and under-capacity.”

Wilkinson asks why schools cannot be the base for distance learning, with teachers using technology to teach those who are at home.

Horgan replies that every district is different and they’re all working on their plans.

“We are going to try and make this work for everybody. Whatever they need, if it's in class, if it's a hybrid, we're going to work it out,” Horgan said.

Again, Wilkinson says parents want choice and they want distance learning provided by the school their children already attend.

“They don't want to be forced to withdraw from the school. Parents see the logic. If a batch of the kids from that school are learning from home, there will be less crowding in the school, less risk of transmission, easier social distancing, a better learning environment for everybody,” Wilkinson said.

“Asked and answered,” Horgan replied.

When Wilkinson asked again, Horgan said people should talk to their schools for answers.

“It's professionals who are dedicating their lives to public health who are putting in place the guidelines that we will operate under. Those are being implemented school by school, community by community, and district by district. That's the plan,” Horgan said.

Wilkinson said schools aren’t even open until September 8 and again asked why parents cannot have the choice of online learning.

Horgan replied, saying back to school is a complicated time every year and this year moreso than ever.

“What I'm saying to families across British Columbia: this is a time of high anxiety. I absolutely understand that,” Horgan said. “We are taking every step we can to make sure that you have local options in your community, wherever that might be, to meet the needs of your children, your family. That's our commitment, and we'll keep with it.”

Wilkinson again presses, saying if parents don’t like the in-person option, they are left with no choice. Horgan then quotes a number of parents who support the back-to-school plan, saying Vancouver will come out with a plan this week that will have “a mix and a hybrid” and that will happen in other districts as well.

“We need to know what the need is. That's why parents are so critically important in this exercise. They need to engage with the people providing the services for their families,” Horgan said.

All quotes from the B.C. Legislature are from Hansard.

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