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…back to school?

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Jody Vance: Part-time, optional in-class instruction is back June 1st. Whether individual students take part is a household-by-household decision.

Ever since the BC government announced kids would have the option to return to in-class instruction starting on June 1st, parents and teachers alike have been asking the same question: “how do you feel about back to school?”

A Friday-of-a-long-weekend announcement left lingering questions, but now we are starting see details of “the plan”.

By now, those impacted have likely received a Letter From The Superintendent. In short it reads:

In-class instruction will be made available for students in kindergarten to grade 5 for two days a week, students in grades 6 and 7 will be offered 1 day each week. Grade 8 through 12 “requiring additional support or instruction” will be contacted through their school.

Also: Attendance in class is voluntary.

Kindergarten through 5 will get a survey to help facilitate staggered scheduling for drop off and pick up. That survey is due Thursday May 21 at 4pm. (Editor’s note: If you’re reading this on day of publication, that’s tomorrow.) Following that, families will receive details about their child’s return.

We’re all going to have a fluid learning curve in this return to school. Not surprisingly, it’s raised teacher and parent anxieties. At the root of this is safety for all, that is certainly reflected in the current plan.

On Monday I had the opportunity to interview both BC Education Minister Rob Fleming and BC Teacher’s Federation president Teri Mooring. You can listen to the full interviews here and here.

A few things jumped out. I asked Minister Fleming about what June will look like for students, and how long in-class learning might continue. He confirmed that this “back to school” is for four weeks total. That means 8 days for little kids and 4 days for middle school kids. Again, total.

This will be experienced differently in different parts of the province. Rural struggles are very real, with a teacher shortage and supply issues prior to COVID-19. Mooring pointed out that in some districts, there are schools without hot running water and soap supplies. Tough to maintain hand hygiene.

Fleming made mention of those rural struggles and shared that he “has asked all districts to report back on what is needed so that all shortcomings can be identified and subsequently filled,” either using budget dollars saved since the shutdown or reimbursement at a later date from the Province.

There are many moving parts to the how’s and why’s of reopening schools, even just for one month. Naysayers point to the brevity, saying it’s not worth it; perhaps the Middle here is that the government and teachers are using this time to try and figure out what fall and winter might look like. After all, that’s just three short months from now.

We have to believe that those challenged with finding a way to educate our kids through COVID-19 are committed to the long game here. Because September will look very different than any back to school in history. Trying to sort out protocols and needs, unforeseen challenges and keeping students, parents, and teachers informed on ever-evolving information…it all requires a test drive.

We should at least applaud the fact that the government and union, so often two polarized mutually suspicious sides, are dovetailing on what’s best for students. Both Fleming and Mooring are calling for all unions involved to work together to bring all districts up to WorkSafe BC COVID-19 standards before June 1.

For those who just aren’t comfortable heading back in June, it was stressed multiple times this is absolutely optional. No student is being forced back to a classroom unless their parents are okay with it. Online and virtual classes will continue as planned.

For me, this is a personal story. With a lad finishing grade 7 and finding online learning alright – but not ideal – we’re talking it through.

Comfortable with the safety piece, my boy said, “we are not going to stop trusting Dr. Bonnie NOW!” But he’s going to make that call closer to the date. Basically, I’m leaving it up to him. We’re confident that Dr. Henry has weighed the risks and would only move forward with kids’ best interests at the centre.

Short answer: we are open to re-opening schools. Will he go? That’s up to him.

This is a teachable moment for our tween. We’re still discussing what school might look like to him. How it will be weird. It will be different and restrictive. Without question, the space they left 10 weeks ago – the freedom of the space – will be gone. On one hand, they might feel more anxious, while on the other simply feel relieved to be able to see friends to say “we are all okay!” Finish up their studies, wave good-bye to their current grade, have closure, and move forward.

Kids are resilient. Often more so than the grown-ups around them. This is their reality, one they most certainly will never forget. It’s up to each to decide the answer to this question, one family at a time.

Jody Vance is a born and raised Vancouverite who’s spent 30 years in both local and national media. The first woman in the history of Canadian TV to host her own sports show in primetime, since 2011 she’s been working in both TV and radio covering news and current affairs.

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