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  • Tracy Sherlock

Teachers and others call for at-home option for September

B.C.’s teachers are calling for an option for at-home learning, smaller classes for students who are in school and stronger rules about when masks must be worn.

It appears that parents and students agree. More than 35,000 people have now signed a petition asking the government to provide an online learning option, similar to what is being offered in some other provinces and parts of the United States. At least one student this reporter talked to feels unsafe returning to school under the plan as it stands.

“Right across this province, new timetables are being developed that will see teachers and support staff in classrooms with up to 30 students or more without physical barriers, capacity limits, or face coverings that we have all grown accustomed to in other workplaces like the grocery store, dental office, or restaurant,” B.C. Teachers’ Federation president Teri Mooring said in a news release. “Physical distancing is not possible in these classrooms.”

The province has already modified its plan somewhat, due to concerns from teachers and parents. Last week, they announced the start of school would be pushed back by two days to allow teachers to get trained and organized for the new year. On Monday, they announced that masks would be mandatory for middle and secondary school students when they cannot keep physical distance.

But they have not yet given an option for at-home learning or made class sizes any smaller. School districts will be announcing their plans this week or next and it’s possible they will include smaller classes or hybrid systems, particularly for very large secondary schools.

Meanwhile, B.C. has gone from a very low number of new cases per day – under 10 many days in June – to new highs in August. For the last seven days, the average number of new cases has been 80 per day.

B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has said that children do not tend to get serious illness with covid-19 and there is mixed research on how much they spread the disease. Henry has also emphasized the importance of school for the social and emotional wellbeing of children, saying the harmful effects of closed schools can affect the most vulnerable children for their entire lives.

The BCTF agrees, but wants to make sure a return to school is safe for everyone.

They calling for a remote learning option that will not sever a student’s connection to their local school, which would happen if a student is home schooled or joins one of the province's existing designated learning schools.

“You can’t have a group of thirty 17-year-olds in a typical classroom for hours and maintain physical distancing for them or their teacher. It’s just not possible,” Mooring said. “B.C. teachers are workers, just like any other profession in this province, and they need to be safe.”

Ervin Cadiz, who is 16 and going into Grade 11 at Byrne Creek Community School in Burnaby, is also wary about the provincial back-to-school plan. Unless something changes, he doesn’t think he will go.

“The government is telling us to be in groups of less than 50, yet they’re putting us in cohorts that might be as big as 120 people. It’s weird. That’s 119 people I don’t know where they’ve been and I’m not sure if they’re covid-free,” Cadiz said.

He will have to take the bus to and from school.

“I’m going to be coming home every day scared to approach my parents and say hi to them because I’m going to be constantly stressed thinking that I’m going to be with 119 people who I don’t know and then I had to take the bus with complete strangers who may have been anywhere.”

His parents have kept their bubbles very small – even at work, they each only come into contact with fewer than 10 people each day.

Cadiz didn’t go back to school in June, but he did go to summer school, to upgrade his math mark in preparation for precalculus in the fall. The class was a hybrid of in-person and online, with about 10 students attending on the days it was held in class. It felt very safe with the small group, he says, and there were hand sanitizing and hand washing stations throughout. Cadiz always wore a mask and would do the same in September if he has to return in person.

The main reason why I think summer school worked so well is because there weren’t hundreds of students there,” said Cadiz, who plans to go to the University of British Columbia after high school, with a goal of specializing in psychology in the workplace. “They were confined to only one floor and there weren’t very many people there so it was very easy to keep sanitized.”

With more than 1,000 students, he doesn’t think it will be safe or sustainable.

Fully two-thirds of parents of school-age children surveyed in a Leger poll last week said they are worried about their children going back to school in September.

The BCTF is also asking for improvement to school ventilation systems, that all adults and students older than 10 be required to wear face masks when physical distancing is not possible, unless a medical condition prevents usage, that physical barriers like plexiglass be added to schools where physical distancing is not possible, additional funding for more custodian cleaning, and accommodations for teachers who are immunocompromised or have chronic health conditions.

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