B.C. education minister diverts federal COVID-19 money to school districts

B.C. teachers’ union emphasizes need to mandate remote learning options and ensure physical distancing

Photo: Dan Toulgoet

B.C. Education Minister Rob Fleming will largely leave it up to the province’s 60 school districts to decide what to do with a $242.4 million federal back-to-school package.

Fleming will skim $24.2 million from the federal package for a rainy day reserve to respond to unforeseen, perhaps localized, COVID-19 needs during the school year, but leave the rest for districts and independent schools, based on their student enrolment.

“This funding will be used in different ways by different school districts based on what their priorities are for additional resources for COVID safety,” Fleming said Thursday at a remote media conference in Victoria, where journalists were barred from attending due to stated physical distancing requirements.

“It may be hiring additional teachers and supporting remote learning options, where the need for that is great. In a rural or remote community, it may be for transportation or investments in schools around safety,” he said.

The primary concern from teachers has been a lack of physical distancing requirements for students in classrooms, despite Fleming’s repeated insistence the back-to-school plan is “science-based.” 

Students and teachers are to forge ahead next week with regular-sized classrooms but with other COVID-19 prevention measures put in place, such as learning cohorts of 60-120 students, alternative timetables to space out additional interactions and extra hand sanitization. From a $45.6 million COVID-19 fund, the ministry is also providing two re-usable masks for each student.

From the federal government, districts will receive $202.2 million while independent schools will receive $15.8 million. B.C.’s biggest school district is Surrey with 74,327 out of the province’s 591,405 public school students in 2019. Its 12.5% chunk of the federal package equates to an estimated $25.4 million. Vancouver’s school board will receive about $18.4 million, based on its student population of 53,911.

B.C. Teachers’ Federation president Teri Mooring said physical distancing needs to be the number one priority for districts.

“We’re pleased the money has been released to school districts but we’re disappointed the way they can use that money isn’t more narrow,” said Mooring.

Of key concern is funding for more teachers to provide remote learning and for students to be able to return to their classroom during the school year.

Mooring said at this point some districts have not adequately provided for remote learning options. She said demand has outpaced supply and Fleming hasn’t made remote learning mandatory for districts.

“We are calling on the provincial government that they must provide a remote option; and that remote option does need to keep that child connected to that school and they need to get full access to the curriculum,” said Mooring.

More teachers will also mean more school space is needed, if enough students return to school. As such, schools without extra space will need to build portables; however, Fleming said the ministry has also left this matter up to districts.

Mooring put to rest speculation the union would strike over working conditions.

“We’re not contemplating job action. In order for us to engage in job action we would have to meet provincially,” she said.

However, what may be more likely is teachers filing grievances with WorkSafe BC, which regulates workplace safety guidelines and states physical distancing of two meters in the workplace as the “first level of protection” against the spread of COVID-19.

“We expect a higher standard in schools, and we do expect districts to live up to their obligations to ensure schools are safe. We think that means they need to use the federal money to hire teachers to reduce the number of students in classrooms and hand-in-hand with that is the remote option.”

The flexibility offered to districts with the funding means there could be varied interpretations of public health orders and recommendations. Fleming did not rule out districts having different policies.

“I expect there will be fairly widespread mask use in school settings, but we’ve heard very clearly from our top scientists that wearing a mask for every minute of the day in every part of school is not realistic; it’s not feasible. But I also expect schools will encourage mask use for certain situations.”

Fleming stressed frequent hand sanitization as a measure already being put in place across the province.

Schools can move up and down a five-stage framework, where Stage 1 is what would be considered “normal” and Stage 5 is full remote learning, as was the case from March to May. Right now students and teachers will return in Stage 2 with no “density targets.” Stage 3 would mean schools operating at 50% capacity, with spaces saved for children of essential workers. It has not been made clear at what level of community spread and infection will health officials call for a move to Stage 3.

Stephanie Higginson, president of the B.C. School Trustees Association, told Glacier Media it is possible for districts to implement different stages, based on recommendations of their health authority.

“Right now there is no indication we will have regionalized or localized shifts in stages.

“But I don’t rule that out as a reasonable response to a community outbreak,” said Higginson.

Asked about whether students would receive the same education in different stages, Higginson said her “hope is if we moved into that stage [Stage 3 or higher], whether it’s provincial or local, then we’ve had some time with these stages to work with them and develop plans.”

She said Australia has seen localized school shutdowns.

Higginson addressed concern about spread of the virus in schools, stating provincial health officials, including experts at B.C. Children’s Hospital, have informed districts that the virus does not spread in schools and among children as much as it does in the community, at home and among adults.

“Schools are not the index place for an outbreak. What happens is if a child gets it they get it at home and bring it into the school. In very, very limited cases has a child then transmitted it in the school setting,” said Higginson.

As such, Higginson said she does not foresee spread of COVID-19 in some districts as opposed to others based on the measures they implement with the funding (one may emphasize hand sanitization stations, while another may emphasize Plexiglass barriers, for example).

The checks and balances against the spread of the virus, plus B.C.’s relatively low infection rates, make for safer school re-opening, as compared with some spots in the United States, for example, said Higginson.

Nevertheless, COVID-19 appears to be a continued concern for government officials to distance themselves and not meet face to face with the public and journalists in an otherwise safe setting. School boards across the province have shut down and gone online, meaning no in-person interactions with the public.

Higginson said the cohort of B.C. trustees tend to be older adults and often with autoimmune concerns within their family.

“So each board will have to figure it out for themselves,” if they want to hold in-person public meetings, she said.

Asked if boards should be in-person after the reopening of schools, Fleming said, “They should do it in a way that respects public health officers’ guidelines for public meetings and settings, such as what a school board office would be like.”