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. 

2016 is Nineteen Eighty-Four

1984 quote

In the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, the government of Oceania has an entire Ministry that uses all forms of media to create a false reality. One of the tasks of the Ministry of Truth is to develop a new language called Newspeak which is meant to make thoughtcrime (thinking critically) impossible. The objective is to  significantly reduce the number of words in the English language so that there would be no words for thoughts that were deemed a crime, that is, thoughts that question the government’s version of the truth.

In British Columbia today, the Government Communications and Public Engagement office has a budget of $37 900 000 to ensure that you have the correct view of what the B.C. Liberals do for you with your money.

Thanks to the work of this office, during the B.C. teachers’ strike in 2014, we learned new meanings for words.

We learned that education assistants were “salary benefits” for teachers.

We learned that there was a thing called an “affordability zone”.

Now, two years later, we continue to learn new meanings for words we thought we understood.

We used to think that funding meant providing more money than what was previously there.

But on 31 May 2016, we learned that “more funding” means “rescinding the 2015 demand that school districts cut $54 000 000 from their budgets and instead allowing them to keep $25 000 000 of the money previously funded and then demanded back.”

We used to think that a moral obligation meant that we were obliged to do good, to do the right thing.

Now we learn from Gordon Wilson, speaking on behalf of the government, that a moral obligation means that we should pollute our air with methane gas, pollute our water with undisclosed chemicals and fracture our earthquake-prone land, all in an attempt to ensure that people who live in China don’t die from the air pollution that they create.

Given this new version of reality in BC, is it now a thoughtcrime to ask about the moral obligation of the BC Liberal government to protect our waterways from mining waste pollution? 

Is it a thoughtcrime to ask about the moral obligation of the Ministry of Education to provide students with schools that do not have rats, asbestos, mould, leaky roofs and dysfunctional heating and cooling systems?

Is it a thoughtcrime to question the government’s concern for people in China when parents in BC worry about delayed seismic upgrades and the lead in the drinking water at their child’s school?

In the novel, the main character, Winston Smith says: Freedom is the freedom to say that 2 + 2 = 4

In BC today, Christy Clark’s  B.C. Liberal government  wants us to believe that 2 + 2 = 5.

They want us to believe that School Trustees are responsible for school closures.

They want us to believe that removing $4 200 000 000 from the education budget over the past 14 years means that they have “increased per student funding to the highest level”.

Perhaps the reason we have so much difficulty believing them is because we remember what happened to Oceania’s chocolate rations in Nineteen Eighty-Four:

It was therefore necessary to rewrite a paragraph of Big Brother’s speech, in such a way as to make him predict the thing that had actually happened. … Today’s issue contained a statement of the actual output, from which it appeared that the forecasts were in every instance grossly wrong. Winston’s job was to rectify the original figures by making them agree with the later ones. As for the third message, it referred to a very simple error which could be set right in a couple of minutes. As short a time ago as February, the Ministry of Plenty had issued a promise (a “categorical pledge” were the official words) that there would be no reduction of the chocolate ration during 1984. Actually, as Winston was aware, the chocolate ration was to be reduced from thirty grammes to twenty at the end of the present week. All that was needed was to substitute for the original promise a warning that it would probably be necessary to reduce the ration at some time in April.
From Nineteen Eighty-Four, Part One, Chapter 4

With so many of us having read  Nineteen Eighty-Four at school, the Government Communications and Public Engagement office certainly has their work cut out.

While they try to convince us about the benefits of the Prosperity Fund we’ll be thinking of the 20% of BC children who go to bed without a meal most nights a week.

While they try to get us to yes, we’ll be thinking no, committing thoughtcrimes as we do so.

Students Still Waiting for Support …

 

You should have been walking across the stage this week at commencement, along with all your peers who started school with you in 2005.  You should have been with them,  celebrating the end of 13 years of schooling.

You had been with them at the start, all excited to finally be going to school.  You couldn’t wait to learn how to read, how to write,  how to add and to subtract.

But by the end of your Grade 1 year, it  became apparent that learning was not going to be easy for you.  Your teacher noticed that you seemed to have difficulty writing what you knew.  You were one of many students in her class who needed help.

She did not have any support for any of you.

Your teacher referred you to a counsellor who put you on a list to be tested by a school psychologist.  She told your teacher it would be a few years before you would be seen as there were many other students awaiting assessments.

By the time your name came to the top of the list, your family had moved to another school and somewhere in the shuffle, your file was lost.  It would be another 3 years before another teacher tried to get help for you and 6 other students in your class who she could see needed extra help. By this time, there were even fewer school psychologists and the list was 2 years long.

By 2010 the school district’s funding for special needs was not what it had been in 2005 when you started school.  It had been gutted to make up for the reduced funding your school district received from the Ministry of Education. Reductions to the number of learning specialists and school psychologists meant that waits became longer and longer.

Soon you were in Grade 8, still without support for your learning difficulties.  With all the usual pressures of being in a secondary school,  your struggles in the classroom and your struggles to fit in outside the classroom became overwhelming and you began to vent your frustrations by acting out in various ways.

You began to have regular visits to the vice-principal’s office. Your behaviour in class was seen to be more of a problem than your inability to read a short story…

In order to get support you needed to have a Ministry designation. In order to get a Ministry designation, you needed to be assessed. In order to be assessed you needed to see a psychologist. And the waiting list kept getting longer and longer.

But with the help of your teachers, you plodded along . They tried to do for you what they could. You were often one of many students in a class who had difficulties learning. All different kinds of difficulties. In fact in some of your classes, there were only 2 students without any difficulties of one kind or another.

You managed to move through your grades because you could explain orally what you were learning. When a teacher asked, you could explain a concept but when it came to writing it down, you had trouble.

Your teachers knew that what you needed was both a special education teacher and  an education assistant.   But in order to get that help, you needed to get a designation.

By the time you got to Grade 10, you were so tired of trying so hard to do what was asked of you.  It seemed that no matter how many hours you spent on an assignment, you could only just barely pass it. You became increasingly frustrated because you understood the questions, you could just not write down the answers that you knew. .

You began skipping school and hanging out at the mall.

You got into quite  bit of trouble for doing that which got you into the vice-principal’s office but not into a school psychologist’s office.

By the time you were finally designated, at the end of Grade 10, there had been such severe funding cuts made that you could not get the help you were finally entitled to.  And since you were now over 16 years old, you did not have to be in school.

And so you left.

Classroom
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But no one wanted to hire anyone who had not graduated high school.

You eventually got a job stacking shelves for minimum wage in a dollar store.

When you were in kindergarten, you had wanted to be a policeman or a fireman or a doctor. You had lots of options back then.

What you wanted most of all was to be a hero to people, to help them, to make a difference. You wanted to fix things,  to make things better.

On the day your peers were at their commencement, you were working a 12 hour shift, stacking shelves at the local dollar store.

They tweeted their pictures to you. You wished you were with them.

Your teachers wished that too.

They have been in a 16-year battle to get more support for students who struggle to learn.

They worked hard to get a new government elected in 2017. They had hoped that the new NDP government would keep their promises to provide supports for all students who needed the help.

It’s been a year now.

With heavy hearts and deep frustration, they’re still waiting.

(This was originally posted in May 2014. It’s been updated to reflect the current reality for students in June 2018. Nothing much has changed even though the government has.)