On the Reopening of BC Schools

As a teacher, I would feel less anxious about schools reopening next week 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.

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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? 

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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. 

The B.C. NDP: ‘Good Enough’ to do better than B.C. Liberals ever did

Years ago I used to lament all the times I had stayed late at work while my daughter fended for herself at home. I couldn’t forgive myself for the times I had yelled when I should have just taken a deep breath. I still cringe when I remember how I didn’t recognize how much she was struggling with the changes in her life.  I was definitely not a perfect parent.  

But I came to realize that I was a good enough one.

Everything I did must have been good enough because she’s turned out perfectly fine after all.

I’m thinking a lot about the concept of “good enough” these days in the lead up to the election in May.  After 16 years of a government that focused on slashing social services and enriching the already rich, I’d love nothing more than a new government to right all those wrongs, to put people before profit, to restore the threads of our shredded social safety net and to do all that it possibly can to protect our air, land and water from pollution and desecration.

I want a government that prioritizes all the issues that I think are important.

But I know that I’m going to have to settle for a good enough one.

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I used to vote for the Green Party and the NDP alternately. I voted Green when two friends ran provincially and federally for office at a time when the evidence about human-made climate change was mounting. Voting for a party that put the environment first seemed logical given the fact that without a liveable environment, all other issues are moot.

When other friends raised questions about the social and economic policies of Green candidates, I ignored them.  I didn’t want to hear that a party that would protect the environment had any flaws in its platform.

And then came the attacks by the Minister of Education on the Vancouver School board and I took note of how the Green Party member on the board responded. How she sided with those who bought into the Minister’s vilification of board members.

Later I started to notice how often Andrew Weaver supports the BC Liberals and Christy Clark, and how much time he spends attacking John Horgan.

Given Christy Clark’s political record since 2001, starting with the gutting of all social service budgets when she was Deputy Premier and her government’s tarnished environmental stewardship reputation, I find it difficult to understand why Horgan is the target of Weaver’s attacks.

These days social media is abuzz with prognostications about the election in May. There are all kinds of predictions about how voting for the Green Party is really a vote for four more years of the BC Liberals.  There are also lots of vehement rebuttals of this argument but, given that some ridings were won by the BC Liberals with just a few hundred votes in 2013, it’s hard not to consider the impact of a Green Party vote.

And so I’m going to vote for the BCNDP, not because they’re the perfect party, and not because I expect them to undo 16 years of BC Liberal rule anytime soon, or even that they will work right away on my personal top priorities.

I’m going to vote for them because they’re a team of good enough politicians who I expect to do the very best they can given the massive provincial debt they will inherit from the BC Liberals.

And I expect that when they can do better, they will.

I came to Canada the last time the NDP was in government in BC and I watched in fascination the unfolding on television of Glen Clark’s resignation over a deck.

If the same standards of intolerance for malfeasance were applied to the BC Liberals today, Christy Clark should have resigned when the first reports of the deaths of children in government care began to surface. She should have resigned when the lies about the health care researchers were revealed. She should have resigned when the New York Times’s revelations about her “pay for play” finally forced local media to look at our “wild west” of electioneering. And she certainly should have resigned last week when she was caught in a Trump-like lie about hacking.

It would be a challenge to make a credible argument that Christy Clark and the BC Liberals are good enough for BC by any measure, including fiscal management. The BC Liberal record is riddled with fiscal fumbling and a failure to be anything even close to “transparent“.

On the 10th May, I hope to be waking up to a new day in B.C. with a ‘good enough for now’ government working hard to be better at governing this province than the BC Liberals ever were.