A Response to Minister Whiteside’s Response

Recently parents and teachers who wrote to the Minister of Education expressing concerns about the current pandemic plan for B.C. schools received a response. This blog, created with help from Lisa Davis and Steve Lyne, is a response to that response.

MINISTER WHITESIDE SAID
Thank you for taking time to write and for sharing your questions, comments and concerns. I want to assure you that as we begin the new school year, the health and safety of students, staff and their families is at the forefront of every decision we make as we continue to navigate through recovering from the global COVID-19 pandemic.

B.C. PARENTS AND TEACHERS SAY
We find it extremely difficult to believe that the health and safety of students, staff and their families is at the forefront of every decision you make. If that were true, BC’s schools would have the same protocols, procedures and responses that schools in Atlantic Canada have had. There, schools are shut down as soon as there are outbreaks and community controls don’t depend alone on the moral integrity of the adults in the community. At this point in the pandemic with BC’s COVID-19 cases averaging 700 per day, can we really make the argument that we are “recovering” from this pandemic? Surely if we were in recovery, we’d be in a position to help Alberta as their hospitals overflow?

MINISTER WHITESIDE SAID
Ensuring students have access to in-class instruction is essential for the social and emotional well-being of students across the province. In-class instruction is vitally important, not only to minimize learning gaps, but because schools play a critical role in our communities, providing essential access to supports such as mental health and food programs during these uncertain times. Thanks to the enormous collective efforts of everyone in the K-12 education system, British Columbia is one of the few jurisdictions that was able to keep schools open during the 2020/21 school year despite the pandemic.

BC PARENTS AND TEACHERS SAY
If schools play such a critical role in communities, why are BC students the lowest funded in western Canada, at almost $2,000 below the Canadian average?

Why is it that 10 years after the Adopt-A-School charity was started in response to teacher Carrie Gelson publishing an open letter begging for help to support her starving and cold students, it continues to fill the need to feed students? Why do schools still have to fundraise to support food programs in schools? If feeding starving children was a priority of your government, why not fund food programs in schools? Why do school districts have charity status so that they can collect donations as the Surrey School district does?

If the social and emotional well-being of students across the province was a priority, there wouldn’t be overcrowded classrooms and a scarcity of supports for students who struggle with learning. Elementary schools wouldn’t only have a counsellor one day a week. A student who has difficulty learning shouldn’t have to share the support of one education assistant with 5 other struggling students in their class.

Keeping schools open during the pandemic came at enormous cost to the mental well-being of K-12 staff as is evident from research conducted by the BCTF and by the Canadian Federation of Teachers and by UBC Early Learning Partnerships.

MINISTER WHITESIDE SAID
Vaccines are the most effective way to reduce the risk of COVID-19 in schools and communities. The vaccines used in British Columbia remain highly effective against COVID-19, including among variants of concern. Two doses of vaccine are available for everyone 12 and older and everyone who is eligible is strongly encouraged to get fully vaccinated. While COVID-19 is present in our communities, there will continue to be COVID-19 exposures in schools involving students and staff. However, the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) reports that, with the increasing proportion of people 12 and over being fully vaccinated and effective communicable disease measures continuing to be in place, exposures are unlikely to lead to further transmission
.

B.C. TEACHERS AND PARENTS SAY
One third of B.C. students who are eligible for vaccines are still not vaccinated. There are no vaccines for K-6 students. There is no mask mandate for K-3 students. Students under 12 have to rely on the moral integrity of the adults around them. Their access to fresh air is dependent on whether their school district has the funding to fully upgrade ventilation systems. The fact is that B.C. public schools have indoor spaces with the highest concentration of unvaccinated people in B.C.

Internationally renowned experts have criticized BC Public Health’s plan for schools and there have been local calls for the BC CDC to provide the science that backs their plan for schools. Teachers continue to wait for the facts that support the refusal to mandate masks for K-3 students.

MINISTER WHITESIDE SAID
To keep students and staff safe, the Ministry of Education will continue to follow the direction of Dr. Bonnie Henry and the Provincial Health Office (PHO). The provincial K-12 Education Steering Committee, comprised of educators, parents, support workers, school leaders, Indigenous rightsholders, and public health experts worked with the Ministry and the BCCDC over the summer to review and update the Provincial COVID-19 Communicable Disease Guidelines for K-12 Settings. All boards of education and independent school authorities will continue to follow these guidelines
.

B.C. PARENTS AND TEACHERS SAY
Based on characteristics of the school plan, the main focus seems to be ensuring parents continue to go to work while their children are at unsafe schools in order to keep the economy going. Questionable regard for the welfare of students in a recent healthcare workers’ webinar led to widespread outrage.

And, can you explain why a Public Health Officer would use parent anxiety as the reason for changes to school notifications? Currently, frantic parents are using social media to find out if there have been positive cases in their child’s school and are angry that they have to do so. Why is it that two moms provide more information about positive cases in BC schools than your Ministry does?

MINISTER WHITESIDE SAID
Although PHO guidance no longer recommends the use of learning groups/cohorts in the K-12 setting, schools will continue to employ measures to help create space between people, as well as implement daily cleaning and disinfecting protocols and ensure that ventilation systems are operated and maintained in accordance with provincial standards. Parents/caregivers, students, staff and other adults are required to complete daily health checks, stay home when feeling sick and practice diligent hygiene. All K-12 staff, students in Grades 4 to 12, and visitors are required to wear a mask indoors in schools and on school buses. Students in Kindergarten to Grade 3 are encouraged to wear a mask. School gatherings and events (including inter-school events) can occur in line with those permitted as per relevant local, regional, provincial, and federal public health recommendations and Orders. Public health teams and school health officers will also continue to monitor COVID-19 cases in schools and the community and will continue to provide support and guidance to schools.

B.C. PARENTS AND TEACHERS SAY
There is no ability to distance in overcrowded schools. None. Daily cleaning has been reduced to pre-pandemic levels. Despite your Ministry ordering schools to install MERV 13 filters, most schools still do not have this done and those who have upgraded their filters have replaced MERV 8 with MERV 11 filters which are inadequate for the task of filtering virus-laden air. Too many schools have outdated ventilation systems that should be replaced and would have been if the health of students in public schools in B.C. truly was a priority of your government.

Image by @moss_sphagnum

MINISTER WHITESIDE SAID
Our government remains committed to providing stable funding to support students, schools and districts during this recovery from the pandemic. As announced on June 17, 2021, the Province is providing $43.6 million to support ongoing health and safety measures, First Nations and Métis students, mental health services, rapid response teams, and to address learning impacts to students. Of the $43.6 million, $25.6 million in new one-time funding will be used for:

Health and safety, including Rapid Response Teams, cleaning and supplies ($14.4 million);
Support for First Nations students and building capacity within First Nations Education Steering Committee and Métis Nation BC ($5 million);
Mental health services ($5 million); and
Independent schools ($1.2 million).

B.C. PARENTS AND TEACHERS SAY
$43.6 million divided by 563,000 students means $77 per student
$14.4 million divided by 1578 schools means $9,125 per school. How much can that buy in schools with over 2000 students?
$5 million for mental health services means $8 per student. Elementary schools have a counsellor one day per week.

MINISTER WHITESIDE SAID
Rapid Response Teams, which have been in place since February 2021 in each of the five health authority regions, continue to operate this school year. The teams will focus on reviewing school communicable disease plans, conducting safety assessments and supporting communications to students, staff and families regarding communicable disease prevention. They will also help schools and school districts to implement pandemic recovery plans including a focus on addressing impacts on learning and supporting student and staff mental health.


BC PARENTS AND TEACHERS SAY
If the “communication” and “guidance” is based on the outdated science about droplets that ignores the airborne transmission of the delta variant, Rapid Response Teams are merely performing public relations spin. COVID-19 is not in the same category as communicable diseases like measles, mumps or pink eye and trying to assuage parents’ and teachers’ concerns with that prevarication is eroding trust in our public health system.

We are appalled at the government’s current response to this pandemic and are frustrated that our concerns are continually dismissed by the Ministry of Education as is the case with this response from Minister Whiteside.

Can you help us Dr. Henry, please?

Dear Dr. Henry,

I’m hoping that this note will provide you with some insights into the lives of the people who live in that northwest corner of Surrey which the leaked documents reveal has the lowest vaccination rates and the above 20% positivity rate for the Covid-19 virus.

You must know that that same corner of Surrey is consistently highlighted in reports on poverty as having some of the highest childhood poverty rates in B.C.

If you live in this corner of Surrey, you’re likely to be an immigrant who speaks many languages except English. You are likely to work at least two jobs, neither of which provide you with paid sick leave. When you’ve had Covid-like symptoms, you weigh the definite outcome of hunger and eviction against the possibility of having Covid. If you don’t go in to work, you don’t get paid, and if you don’t get paid, your family doesn’t eat because the little money you do have must go to rent.

Your family is unlikely to own a car, so even if you wanted to get tested, you’d have to find a way to use the bus that only runs once every hour in your neighbourhood. There is an additional problem in that Translink warns you shouldn’t be on a bus if you’re sick.

No description available.

You can’t afford a taxi.

So, when you’re sick, you just stay home and hope to feel better in a day or so.

You were a business owner in your country of origin. Or a professional with a good middle-class lifestyle. But here, you’re an ‘essential worker’ whose work keeps the economy going but is not important enough to get you paid on the days you’re off sick.

When you stay home sick, you cannot isolate yourself from other family members because there are nine of you sharing a two-bedroom basement suite. You do your best, but it’s inevitable that other family members get sick as well.

Your children attend schools in Surrey. You keep getting notifications about exposures in those schools. They have a note at the top telling you in your first language to get the notice translated, but you don’t have time. Your translators, your children, have often gone to bed by the time you get home from work, and you’re gone to work before they wake up to go to school.

So, Dr. Henry, how do you propose to provide this community with the resources they need?

If Public Health could keep in mind the daily reality of people living in this corner of Surrey, wouldn’t there be a completely different approach, aligned with community characteristics, not just statistics?

People who live in the northwest corner of Surrey are more than the numbers in those leaked documents. They are B.C. citizens who are doing their best to survive in a pandemic despite having far fewer resources than most of us do.

You have the power to help them.

Please do.

Sincerely,

A Surrey Teacher

What a lie!

I taught in South Africa during the Apartheid-era, in underfunded schools for ‘coloured’ people, with crowded classrooms and very few resources.

I never felt as dispirited, distressed, and disrespected as I do now, teaching in British Columbia under John Horgan’s government.

In South Africa, I had hope for a better tomorrow. I knew that democracy had to come one day and that I was on the right side of history in the fight for it.

For years I hoped that B.C. would elect a progressive, NDP government so that we could rehabilitate the deteriorating situations in schools. During the 2014 strike, while walking the picket line, and during endless hours in advocacy meetings and online, the dream of the BC NDP forming government kept me going.

In the 2017 election, I went all in during the election campaign, canvassing and contributing in many ways. I was thrilled when they won.

But, right from the start, when Fleming refused to hire more teachers while hundreds of students were without a classroom teacher for months, the signs were there that my hopes would be dashed.

I’ve written a few times about the many disappointments and don’t want to repeat them here. Frankly, I’m so tired of talking about the multiple betrayals, and about my shock at what turncoats the BC NDP turned out to be.

Now I just want to curl into a fetal position and hide.

There’ve been about 30 exposure letters in my school. Multiple classes have been ‘monitoring’ or ‘isolating’. Colleagues have had the virus.

And now there’s a new variant that is highly transmissible and potentially more dangerous and our Public Health Office has done nothing to increase the meagre protection measures in place. There’s been an increase in the number of cases of the new variants, and that they don’t know how they’re spreading.

I keep buying new kinds of masks that promise more protection. It feels futile.

I keep checking my “In case of Death” folder to ensure that all the information is clear for my daughter.

“Corrected” BC gov image by Susan Chung

In South Africa we had no union to protect our rights as workers. There was no Workers’ Compensation Board for us.

But, even though now I am one of 44,000 teachers in a union, I feel helpless and powerless and at the mercy of a public health officer who denied for months that wearing masks was effective protection against being infected.

In the Rachel Maddow interview of Dr Fauci on Friday, 22nd January, it became glaringly obvious how out of alignment with the renowned epidemiologist the BC CDC is.

Dr. Fauci is an advocate of mass testing of asymptomatic people.
Dr. Bonnie Henry continues to resist that idea.

Fauci created a video to promote mask wearing everywhere. Because of Henry’s views on masks, not backed by any scientific research at all, teachers struggle to explain to students why they don’t have to wear a mask in a classroom, an indoor public place.

New research suggests that talking can spread the virus just as effectively as coughing does. Talking is what I do all day in the classroom and I encourage my students to talk to me, to each other. It’s what is done in a 21st century classroom. But the BC CDC K-12 guidelines are more suitable for a Dickensian classroom where students sit, unmasked, silently like statues, facing forward.

I’m constantly worrying that my ethical obligation to act as a prudent parent in the classroom is being handicapped by people who have no clue about how schools work today.

I am so done.

I resonate with the nurses who recently said that those of them who don’t die are going to quit.

Yes, that’s where I am, while teaching in one of the richest provinces in one of the richest countries in the world, under a democratically elected government formed by a political party that spent 16 years in Opposition promising better days for teachers.

What a colossal lie.

‘Twas the day before school …

Teachers Jen Heighton and Susan Chung joined me in creating the following verses to express how we’re feeling today on the eve of our return to school.

‘Twas the day before school start
And students through BC
Are readying themselves for Covid 19

There is a new variant,
The one that moves fast,
From child to child
In their BCEd class.

It’s evolved a new spike
And moves so quickly though schools
That the WHO even gave us
More school safety rules

Why won’t the BCCDC evolve with the virus?
Give students masks and distance
In class to protect us?

‘Twas the day before school start
And all through BC
Our teachers are begging
For much better safety!

Will Dr Bonnie Henry
Hear all of our cries?
We want to stay healthy,
We don’t want to die!

Image by Susan Chung

‘Twas the day before school start
And all through BC
Teachers were prepping and marking
While suppressing high anxiety.

What of this new variant,
The one that moves fast,
From maskless child to maskless child
In each overcrowded class?

Why won’t BC’s PHO
Take heed of the advice
That UK scientists are sharing
So others don’t pay the price?:

“UK hospitals are crowded
You don’t have time to waste
The variant spreads fast
So put better safety measures in place.

“Our schools had B.C-like policies
But that allowed the spread
Through children then households
We wish we’d thought ahead

“So politicians around the world,
You’d better not wait
Until your hospitals are full,
By then it is too late.

“This virus mutates when it wants,
And yes, a vaccine is on the way,
But UK, South Africa, Nigeria
Show mutant strains are here to stay

“So learn from our mistakes,
Be prudent and smart,
To keep schools open longer
Break the chains at the start.”

BC teachers paid attention;
Knew their classrooms were packed,
Thought, “What do we do with this info;
How should BC react?”

Mandate masks, allow for distance
Hybrid learning can be done
Open windows, clean the air,
Safety should be number one.

‘Twas the day before school start
And all through BC
Teachers were fretful and frightened,
Demanding more workplace safety.

Burning Out: A Surrey Teacher’s Story

GUEST POST WRITTEN BY A SURREY TEACHER WHO WISHES TO REMAIN ANONYMOUS.

At the end of November, I received the following in an email from a parent of a student in my class: “I would like to inform you that we all got tested positive with COVID 19. I did call the office already to let them know about it.” Their kid hadn’t missed a day of school prior to testing. I began freaking out, not only because I was exposed, but also because I had been a failure to fill during the week, meaning that there was no TTOC to cover my absence, which resulted in multiple non-enrolling teachers rotating coverage in my room for blocks at a time over the days I was away.

(The TTOC I had originally booked was ordered to self-isolate over the 2 weeks as they had worked at Cambridge Elementary, which was one of the Surrey schools that had to self-isolate due to an outbreak. Also, having been a school on the Fraser Health exposure list, we have noticed we’re having difficulties getting TTOCs to come to our school and have had many, many failures to fill over the weeks, resulting in non-enrolling teachers being pulled from counselling, learning support, library, etc. to cover classes. Not only are students losing out, but I feel these teachers and cohorts are at a greater risk of more exposure.)

The office, although they had received the call from this parent, hadn’t told me “due to confidentiality”. Why are we trusted with so many other confidential personal and medical documents for our students, but not this? I was told I wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone about this. I agreed that the student’s name should be kept confidential, but couldn’t we at least share that we knew we had had an exposure in my room or the school? I was told I needed to wait for Public Health to do their job. With the known delays in Public Health’s contact tracing, this was not reassuring.

This is when my mental health took a turn for the worst. I immediately went to a COVID-19 testing site to get tested, then went home to self-isolate while waiting for results. That night, the news of another Surrey school, Newton Elementary, self-isolating due to an outbreak hit the news media. My colleagues at my school began sharing their anxieties and fears, promising that they would tell each other if they ever heard of any news at our school. “I would tell as I want to protect my colleagues. I feel it’s my moral obligation.” Due to fear of being disciplined, I stayed quiet.

I felt so isolated and powerless. I was scared of getting COVID. I cried all day Saturday. All weekend I didn’t leave my bedroom. I received my negative results, but those came with no relief. Anxious thoughts about it spreading in my room ran through my head. I have had parents straight up tell me they won’t test their child as “it’s just a cold”. I have students share they are still visiting with others outside their household despite health orders.

The “exposure” notice spanning 3 days was sent to our school staff and families over a week later. My students received an additional “self monitoring” letter 2 days later, stating that we needed to monitor for symptoms for 2 weeks, of which only 5 days were left.

Image: Susan Chung

A few days later, I was told that a parent of one of my students had tested positive. The parent asked if they could still send the child to school. How a child is not deemed a close contact is beyond me but the school managed to convince the parent to keep the student home. This student sits beside the other student who tested positive and I can’t help but wonder if perhaps they are asymptomatic and transmission is now occurring in my classroom. They only sit half a meter away from each other after all, as my class is maxed out with almost 30 kids.

A few days after that, I was alerted that another parent of a student of mine has tested positive and the student will be self-isolating. This is a student who rarely wears a mask as they are not mandatory in schools.

Both these cases will not count as official class exposures as both times the students were never tested. As the science shows that students tend to be asymptomatic, how can we be so sure there wasn’t an exposure and there isn’t transmission happening in my class?

That evening our school received another exposure notice. My letter stated it was not in my classroom, but as teachers know, there are no cohorts during recess and lunchtime play. Students are often mingling during these times, often without masks on.

Just before driving to work the next morning, I received an email from our band teacher that they have been identified as a close contact to someone who tested positive and must now self-isolate for 2 weeks, with an exposure date of 11 days prior. This teacher was just playing wind instruments with my students the day before. My anxiety skyrocketed. I called my mom in a panic on my way to work, contemplating several times if I should/could make a u-turn and go home. My mom said it shouldn’t be this way, “you shouldn’t be worried about your health and safety every time you go to work.”

I tried to do all I could to keep me and my students safe throughout the day. Encouraging masks be worn. Encouraging the washing of hands. Keeping my window and door open. Despite that, I had someone come into my classroom and state that it was “too cold” in my room and move to shut the door. I protested, stating it was a layer of protection against COVID-19, but they still insisted it only be open a crack. I was so upset and felt unsupported.

I drove home crying after work. I began feeling nauseous and had a headache, and while I knew it was probably stress and anxiety related, these are also symptoms on our daily health checklist and so I couldn’t help but wonder if it might be COVID. When I got home, my partner could immediately sense something was wrong and wrapped me in a hug. He urged me to stay home. I tried to explain how guilty I felt, like I was abandoning my students. Eventually, I booked the day off, but I don’t feel good about it as I’m afraid I will be a failure to fill again. I will be going to get another COVID test, just in case.

I am so upset that we are being put into this situation. There are MANY teachers going through similar things that I am. The winter break can’t come sooner. But will it be enough to recharge our mental health, especially when nothing is changing? As you can see from my experience, there are so many issues that our government is failing to address, including an increase of failures to fill, delays in contact tracing, transparency of positive cases connected to schools, cohorts mixing, overcrowding in classrooms that don’t allow for physical distancing, inconsistent mask wearing, and mental health. Teachers’ mental health is deteriorating at a rapid pace. They are sick of being told to access counselling for it. Counsellors can’t protect us and our students from contacting COVID-19.

You got this!

Dear Students,

I’m sorry. I don’t know why it’s not okay for you to hang out with 30 of your friends at a house party, but it is okay for you to be in a classroom with 30 students you don’t know. I’ve tried all summer to get an answer to this question for you and have not succeeded.

I also don’t know why you have been organized into cohorts that are supposed to stay separated, but it’s okay for you to hang out with friends from other cohorts at lunch. As long as you stay one meter apart. Or that may be two meters. I really don’t know because I also get confused when I listen to all the announcements.

I’m also sorry that, while you’re attending school this year, you can’t visit or be with your grandparents or your cousins or your best friend or the person you’re dating. I’m especially sorry that you have to switch out the people you care about from your bubble and replace them with your peers at school. I know you’d rather be with the people you are closest to, but this is the new reality.

You know how we’ve often talked about things that don’t make sense but that we have to do anyway? This is one of those times.  The rule is that you can’t have house parties, so don’t. Don’t start the year getting into trouble with public health officials.

That would not be a good way to start your final year of high school.

I can imagine that when you started kindergarten in 2008, graduating during a pandemic was not anywhere on your radar. But here we are.

What I do know is that you’re going to be okay.

In each of your families, there are stories of relatives who have survived challenging times. You are the descendants of people who survived armed conflict, genocide, displacement, slavery, apartheid, hunger, and other struggles that may still be ongoing.

Remember when you interviewed older relatives for the Intergenerational Project? Remember how surprised you were to learn how difficult and challenging your relatives’ lives had once been?

Now, life’s lottery has dealt you a pandemic.

In addition to other difficulties you may be going through, have gone through, or will go through this year, you’ll be ending your school career during a pandemic.

But just as your relatives survived and thrived, so will you.

You got this.

Two Students: September 2020, by Susan Chung

For the past 4 years in high school, you’ve been riding the turmoils that being a teenager brings. Heartbreak. Lost friendships. Knowing so much about some things and not enough about others. But you kept on learning. You kept figuring things out.

Graduating during a pandemic is another thing you’ll figure out.

School is going to look different. Not everything that you had at school in March is going to be back in September. You won’t be able to hang out anywhere you want with whomever. But you’ll still be able to connect with friends through Snapchat and Tik Tok and InstaGram and … probably a new app you’ve already been using that I don’t know about!

Depending on how many students are in the classroom, you may not be able to do any group work at all. This is a big adjustment for me as well – you know how much I love group projects! The main reason I do is because I know that you learn so much more when you’re talking to each other instead of listening passively to a lecture from me.

The good news is that we’ll still be having brain breaks! We have to organize a system to ensure all the racquets and bats and balls and frisbees for brain breaks stay clean, but we’re going to be outside a lot. Make sure you’re ready to go outside, no matter the weather!

Really, you’re going to be okay.

During your lifetime, a lot of news has been dreadful. When you were born, in 2003, the US invaded Iraq. In 2002, Canadian troops were deployed to Afghanistan. You grew up knowing what ‘terrorism’ is. You know how destructive a tsunami can be. You have watched the devastation wrought by hurricanes and wildfires and earthquakes. But you have also watched how people came together and worked tirelessly to save lives, to fix what was broken, to make a difference.

You too have helped whenever there was a need to raise money and awareness so that a wrong could be made right. I am constantly amazed at your dedication to being the change you want to see in the world. You have joined with teens globally to participate in climate strikes and to protest racism and injustice. You are not okay with the status quo – you want a better world. And I know you’re going to make sure it happens!

This is why I know you’re going to be okay.

Remember all those Core Competencies Self-assessments you’ve been completing since Grade 8? Remember how you had to show how you had been communicating effectively and how you’d used your critical and creative thinking skills? Guess what? Those are the same skills your relatives and ancestors used to get through all the harshness that came their way.

Think about all your strengths that you wrote about in your reflections on your Personal and Social competency. You’ve already demonstrated that you can not only take care of yourself, but you can also overcome all kinds of obstacles and challenges.

You absolutely have got this!

As your teacher, I promise that I’ll do all that I can to help you navigate through this most unusual graduation year.  I promise to make sure that your time in my classroom is spent developing skills you’ll need not only for this year but for many years to come.

We got this.

100%.

Sincerely,
Foster

Clearing the Misinformation

At every Covid-19 update for the past few weeks, there is a statement made about how critical it is for students to be back at school. The subtext of these statements is  “…but teachers are not being co-operative”.

Teachers fully understand the importance of school for children and teens and we want to teach students in classrooms, face-to-face. What we don’t want is to risk our lives in order to do our jobs.

I’ve not heard of any teacher dying from a flu they caught at school. No teacher has died from being around students who have measles or mumps.
Covid-19 is not in the same category as the flu as we’ve been told for months so please don’t tell us something different now.

The reason education assistants, teachers, vice-principals, and principals have concerns about the Restart plan is because we are the adults who actually spend time with children in schools. We know what students and schools are like. We are not pontificating about the importance of schools from an air-conditioned office while relying on memories of school from decades ago.

Image by Susan Chung

We adapted to Emergency Remote Teaching in the spring. We need time to prepare for Blended Learning in the fall. We have not said that we are against a combination of online and face-to-face learning. We have said we don’t want to double our workload.

It’s infuriating to have to listen to lectures on the importance of school for students’ mental health when every teacher knows about dozens of students who have suffered because of a lack of psychologists and counsellors in schools for decades.

It’s infuriating to hear about schools being important for students’ health as long as Adopt-A-School has to exist to provide for schools what governments fail to.

It’s infuriating to continue to be ignored when we voice our concerns based on our professional experience and knowledge. We’re treated as though we are idiots when many of us have Master’s degrees and decades of experience in classrooms.

We are being gaslit at a time when our skills should be utilized in order to create the safest situation for students.

The least effective way to ensure students’ social and emotional health is to create distress in their teachers by ignoring our valid concerns. We know what we are talking about.

Stop gaslighting us.

Gaslighting teachers

For weeks now teachers have been receiving newsletters from the Ministry of Education that tell us in one way or another how important schools are for students. After the first few I started to get a visceral reaction whenever I saw one in my Inbox.  I couldn’t quite articulate why until the latest newsletter stated:  

Global research tells us that school closures disrupt the learning process and long-term outcomes of students. The adverse effects can go beyond learning loss and include implications like food insecurity or loss of access to health services that can be potentially harmful for students. As educators, you play a significant role that reaches beyond the classroom in children’s lives …

This one was the last straw.

To explain the impact of these newsletters, we need  a second definition for the term ‘gaslighting’.

The original meaning refers to emotional abuse where the victim is made to question their sense of reality.

What the Ministry of Education is doing is more like political gaslighting.

It’s as though teachers have not struggled for decades to get the attention of governments about the needs of students in schools.

As though we did not forgo salary increases in order to ensure there was class size and composition language in our contracts so that students would get the supports they needed.

As though we did not spend 14 years in a legal battle with the government to regain the class size and composition language that was stripped from us.

As though we have not decried the uselessness and emotional cost of the Foundational Skills Assessments that the BCNDP promised, while in Opposition, to end.

As though our hearts don’t break every day we are told there are no Education Assistants for our students who desperately need them.

As though we don’t keep food in our classrooms for our hungry students.

As though we have not been spending hundreds of dollars each  year on classroom supplies.

As though teachers have not held fundraising campaigns to provide what students need.

As though we don’t know that the shortage of counsellors leads to more suffering for our students.

As though we don’t know about the years of waiting for our students to see a School Psychologist.

As though we did not have to mount media campaign after media campaign for the past 20 years pointing out the needs of students in schools.

As if we have not been begging for years for our students to be funded at least to the Canadian average.

And now it’s someone’s job at the Ministry of Education to create newsletters telling us how important schools are for students?

We’ve been saying this for decades!

The Ministry of Education needs to stop politically gaslighting teachers and instead prioritize funding in schools.

If  public schools in B.C. are important for:

  • the economy
  • the mental health of children
  • the social-emotional needs of children
  • the education of children

why are they funded like this: 

Funding 2

Instead of publishing newsletters about the importance of schools, fund public education as though students’ well-being truly matters.

And stop gaslighting us.

On the Reopening of BC Schools

As a teacher, I would feel less anxious about schools reopening next week [edit: in September] if the Public Health Office expressed confidence in a return to in-school instruction after they had conducted random checks of a sample of schools in a range of socio-economic areas to see first-hand the facilities that public schools in British Columbia actually have.

Restaurants are regularly inspected to ensure that meal preparation is hygienic and safe; all businesses frequented by the public know that their facilities have to be in safety compliance or their reputation will suffer and they will lose clients.  Public schools in B.C. seem to exist in a different category when it comes to health and safety. 

It’s only recently that there has been progress toward seismic safety but ongoing problems with mice infestation and the lack of drinkable water in many schools seems to be an inconvenient truth that we should all just learn to live with.

For almost two decades under the BC Liberals, there was little money for failing and inadequate infrastructure. It’s understandable that the current  BC NDP government cannot reverse the damage of  decades of neglect within a short time. 

That neglect was at best tolerable during the Before times. But then Covid-19 came along and shed blinding sunlight into the darkest of health and safety corners within the public education system in B.C.

https://fixbced.tumblr.com/

Like many people in B.C. I’ve been riveted to regular Covid-19 updates by Dr. Henry. I admire her calm demeanor and steadfast handling of an unprecedented crisis.  I have been especially impressed by the way she responds when concerns are raised about the number of people lining up to board a ferry or the number of people enjoying the sun at a local beach.

She refuses to fan any frustration that some may feel at the apparent violation of her orders. Instead she expresses confidence, backed by data, that people are in fact following her orders. 

Dr. Henry is reasonable and expects people to be as well. She has instructed the Ministry of Education to ensure that schools are safe for students’ return. I’m sure she expects that the Ministry of Education will be reasonable in its execution of her orders.

The problem is that teachers have vivid memories of the Ministry of Education being anything but reasonable.  Whether it was when they demanded concessions to our collective agreement in recent bargaining or when they ignored pleas for more funding for students with special needs, being unreasonable has been the Ministry’s default setting for quite a while.

For years teachers have said that it’s not reasonable to expect students to learn in hot and stuffy portable classrooms; that it’s not reasonable to expect teachers to spend their own money on supplies for their classrooms. 

And teachers know that it’s not reasonable for the Ministry of Education to expect that after decades of cuts to budgets that there will be enough money in each school district to ensure that all Dr. Henry’s protocols are followed.   

Covid-19’s presence has led to the opening of the government’s purse in ways unseen since the Great Depression with many programs available to support various sectors of society during this challenging time.

So where’s the money for schools? 

In fulfilling Dr. Henry’s orders, how does one ensure thorough hand hygiene when taps have to be held down to get a 4-second spurt of cold water? 

https://fixbced.tumblr.com/

How will overworked, skeletal custodial staff manage with the much longer list of cleaning tasks when they barely had enough time for cleaning classrooms during the Before times? 

In BC we can expect that any hospital in the province has standardized facilities to protect the health of patients and staff. No such standardization exists in BC schools.

Whereas one school may have a mice infestation and warnings posted at drinking fountains not to drink the water,  another school may have ergonomically designed classrooms with beautiful bathrooms in wide hallways, lots of natural light everywhere, and easy access to outdoor classrooms.

Teachers all across the province know that, in some schools, it will be easy to follow all the guidelines for a safe return to school but in too many schools it will not be. 

When all schools have lead-free drinkable water, when all school washrooms have taps that don’t have to be held down in order to work, when all schools have fully-functioning ventilation systems, then we can be confident in there being reduced opportunities for viruses to spread when we return to schools.

That would take money though. And the education budget, as a percentage of our GDP, has been kept low by both major political parties when they’re in power.

In the Before times, the impacts of regular reductions to education budgets have been borne by students who have fallen through the cracks in the system.

In this time of a pandemic, the impacts of neglected infrastructure could spread well beyond classroom walls. 

And that is not reasonable at all.