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  • Tracy Sherlock

Students go back to school in a smoky B.C. today

B.C. children head back to school today, under smoky skies and new covid-19 protocols. (Photo: VSB.)

B.C. children officially head back to school today, with both covid-19 protocols in place, and now, a smoke advisory. Districts including Vancouver put out an advisory suggesting that vigorous activity, like physical education classes, will not take place outdoors and that windows and doors would need to be closed. The covid-19 protocols call for more time spent outdoors and open windows and doors.

The B.C. Teachers’ Federation urged the government to take action, in a tweet. “Teachers and students should not be in crowded classes with no ventilation or fresh air,” BCTF tweeted.

The Vancouver School Board said in its statement that health and safety is the top priority.

“The district has many covid-19 health and safety control measures in place including maximizing physical distancing, practising respiratory etiquette, student learning groups, frequent hand hygiene and enhanced cleaning protocols,” the statement said.

Meanwhile, the first warning about a covid-19 case in a school was issued Friday in Surrey. There were no students in attendance at the same time as the affected staff member and anyone who needs to self-isolate has been informed. But still, it’s a warning of what is likely to become a regular occurrence.

B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has said that outbreaks in schools will be reported publicly. An outbreak is when a case is transmitted at the school, not just when someone at a school tests positive for covid-19. Some provinces, like Ontario and Alberta, have set up websites to report covid-19 cases in schools. So far, that’s not the case in B.C., but we will have to wait for an actual outbreak to see what the reporting looks like.

Dr. Henry said she expects to see cases in schools, but that she doesn’t think an entire school would need to close down unless a lot of staff needed to self-isolate and there weren’t enough adults to continue operating. The BC Centre for Disease control has created a new page with health and safety guidelines for schools, which includes protocols for what will happen if someone becomes sick at school and instructions for when school staff members or students need to stay home.

Education Minister Rob Fleming said districts could use some of the federal $240 million given to B.C. to make schools safer in the pandemic to hire more teachers for remote learning, but it still remains unclear exactly how that will work. Many districts, including Vancouver and Surrey, have created transitional remote learning options, but it's not clear if their own classroom teachers will be teaching those classes, if other teachers will be hired to do so, or if some teachers might be reassigned to this work. It's also possible that decision may vary by district.

In other recent education news, the province added $2 million to school districts to support mental health. Districts can use the funds for staff training, student workshops, family information nights or new resources, the province said.

“It's important for people to know that it's okay to not be okay, especially during these extremely challenging times," said Katrine Conroy, Minister of Children and Family Development. "With this funding, young people of all ages and their parents can get more support from our many programs and services that help keep students on the path to success."

Last month, the B.C. Ombudsperson found the B.C. Ministry of Education was misleading in its communication with students and the public, in its response to an error in its reporting of provincial exam results, the B.C. Ombudsperson found.

“Our findings reveal a number of shortcomings in a system that young people were relying on at one of the key points of their lives,” said ombudsperson Jay Chalke. “A rushed and inadequate quality assurance process led to the errors. What followed was poor communication with students, families and post-secondary institutions at a time when clarity was needed.”

The ministry’s response was misleading, Chalke found.

“Instead of informing students and their families that incorrect marks had been issued to multiple post-secondary institutions, naming those institutions, and notifying the students and institutions immediately and directly, the ministry, over the course of several days, downplayed the situation and the extent of the problem,” the report says.

As a result, the report recommends that the ministry should require a senior ministry official to certify in writing that all statements in any news release, social media posting, website posting or other communication with the public is accurate and not misleading.

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