The president of the Surrey Teachers’ Association says the Surrey school district’s return-to-school plan amid the COVID-19 pandemic is “certainly a positive step in the right direction.”
“I think, frankly, a recognition that the provincial plan does not go far enough for safety,” Matt Westphal told the Now-Leader Friday (Aug. 20).
On July 29, the Ministry of Education announced that province’s plan for a return to school provincewide in September, but much of the plan was up to individual school districts.
Education Minister Rob Fleming said the province was moving to Stage 2 of the B.C. Education Restart Plan for the start of the 2020-21 school year.
Students would be organized into “learning groups” or “cohorts” made up of a “consistent group of staff and students.” Students would be assigned to groups of up to 60 for elementary school and 120 for high school.
In Surrey, the district announced on Aug. 18 that it would be submitting a plan to the ministry on Aug. 21 for cohorts for grades 10 to 12 to be 30 students, while cohorts for grades 8 and 9 would be 60 students.
But Westphal said the association is still calling of the Surrey Board of Education trustees to open in “Stage 3.”
Stage 3, defined by the Ministry of Education, as a combination of in-class and remote learning, which has a 50 per cent density target for all schools.
Westphal said it should be the hybrid model – similar to how school looked in June – at all levels.
He pointed to the COVID-19 cases south of the Fraser River.
The latest data (Saturday, Aug. 22), shows 2,572 total cases in the Fraser Health region since the start of the pandemic. There are 386 active cases in the health region, with 39 of those announced on Friday.
“It’s going to be far worse if we have a big outbreak and then we have to shut things down if we move too quickly.”
Westphal said teachers are “extremely concerned,” adding there have been talks from some teachers about resigning or taking a leave of absence.
Over the summer, he said the association surveyed teachers and received about 2,700 responses. It included about 500 pages of feedback, with roughly 80 per cent responding that they were either “anxious” or“very anxious” about a return to school, Westphal said.
“They don’t feel comfortable coming into a classroom that’s full of young adults with no requirements to wear masks, no ability to physical distance.”
On Aug. 17, the education ministry made masks mandatory for older students in “high traffic areas.”
Asked how he thinks the first day of school could go, Westphal replied: “The start of school is always a bit chaotic, especially at elementary where they don’t really know until the first week exactly how many students they have because people often register that first week.”
He said that’s a “real concern” now since the district, staff and teachers aren’t sure how many parents will choose to send their children to school.
“We want parents to feel confident in the neighbourhood school,” said Westphal, adding that some families feel it’s a choice between not feeling safe while also not wanting to lose their spot in a program, such as French Immersion.
Surrey Schools Superintendent Jordan Tinney said if parents are considering holding off on sending their children back to school, they need to be “explicit.”
“When people are saying, ‘Can I hold my spot?’ We need to know what they mean,” explained Tinney.
“So for example, some people are saying, ‘Will you hold my spot in French Immersion?’… Well, if your child is in Grade 5 French Immersion, there’s no one to take that spot. There isn’t a waitlist for Grade 5 French Immersion. It really is a non-issue for us. But if it’s kindergarten, if that’s what you’re saying, that’s a whole different ball game.
“Are they saying that ‘I want to remain connected to my neighbourhood school and I’ll be back next year’? That’s super easy for us because you’re in your catchment, you’re in your population anyway. That doesn’t change anything for us. But if you say I want to retain my spot, and should COVID get better or our circumstances change in October, November, that’s a problem.”
At that point, Tinney said, schools would have already been staffed and organized based on the numbers in September.
“If you had a school of 500 students and 100 chose to stay home and said, ‘Please hold my spot in the school.’ We would still be staffing the school for 500 and we wouldn’t have the children there.”