Parents fearful about new school year look for other options

Parents anxious about sending their kids back to school during the pandemic are looking at alternatives to in-person instruction, but some educators worry large-scale withdrawals from public schools could create a two-tier system.

Saanich mom Kelli Rain said with rising COVID-19 case numbers in B.C. — including several new ones on Vancouver Island this week — she’s reluctant to send her six-year-old son to Northridge Elementary, where he’s due to start Grade 1.

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“I don’t know a parent who is completely comfortable sending their child back to school,” Rain said. “Everyone is concerned, everyone is just scrambling to try and figure it out.”

Rain is exploring the idea of creating an outdoor learning pod in which six or eight families would share the cost of hiring a teacher to educate their kids.

She joined a Facebook group called Learning Pods British Columbia hoping to connect with parents and teachers looking for work. Rain said the price would depend on the number of parents in the pod, but she’s estimating between $1,200 and $1,500 each a month, which, she said, isn’t much more than some full-time daycare spots.

“I’m really wanting to either find or create an environment that’s healthy for them and also where they’re safe and they feel safe and they’re not having to be told all the time that they need to distance,” she said.

A survey by Leger and the Association for Canadian Studies found 66 per cent of respondents with children were worried about sending their kids back to school, but 63 per cent said they planned to send them anyway. However, 69 per cent of respondents said all classes should be suspended and remote learning resumed if there were a significant spike in COVID-19 cases in their area.

Kourtney Ford has been home-schooling her sons, Talon, seven, and Gaege, 10, since schools closed in March. The one-on-one attention has resulted in a dramatic improvement in Talon’s reading and writing, she said.

Ford, 36, is in remission from cancer and is immune compromised, so sending her kids back to school in September is not an option. The B.C. government has said students resuming full-time in-class learning on Sept. 10 will be placed into learning cohorts of 60 for elementary and middle school students and up to 120 for high school students.

“I can’t send them back, the [cohort] sizes are just too big,” she said. “Having 60 people in the bubble, that’s a huge number of people.”

However, both her boys miss recess with their friends, so Ford is organizing free weekly outdoor physical education classes at which students can maintain social distance and get some exercise. Classes could be expanded to include science or other outdoor learning, she says, adding that she has already received interest from about 100 parents.

Bonnie Davidson, founder of Victoria Nature School, which provides outdoor education for 65 children between three and seven, said she has been swamped with requests from parents looking for alternatives to in-class learning. The school has been full since February, but the wait-list has grown to four times the normal size.

Davidson wishes the public school system was more flexible in offering learning options beyond the traditional desk-and-classroom environment and promoting nature-based education, especially during the pandemic. “[Parents] just want choice and I don’t see much choice being offered right now,” she said.

After keeping a small bubble all summer, Davidson is nervous about sending her children back to classes on Sept. 10. She and her husband — both teachers — work at different schools and have one child in elementary school and one in middle school.

“Our bubble in September is going to burst,” she said. “We are going to be exposed to four different schools. It’s crazy.”

Winona Waldron, president of the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association, said she can understand why parents are nervous about sending their kids back to school. Many teachers, especially those who are older or immune-compromised, are inquiring about taking a medical leave this school year.

Waldron is concerned that if parents opt for private learning pods, it could exacerbate inequalities between wealthier and lower-income families. “I think it creates a two-tiered system. It furthers the gap between families who have the resources and those that don’t,” Waldron said. “Public school should be one of the equalizers that brings people to the same footing.”

Ford said she still supports the public education system, but has to do what’s right for her kids, who have so far thrived with home-schooling.

“It’s hard to think about anything other than what’s best for your kids at this time. Everyone is winging it the best they can and trying to adapt to the new normal and trying to do what’s best for their families.”

Jordan Watters, chairwoman of the Greater Victoria school board, said she hopes families will wait until school districts release their restart plans on Aug. 26 before they make any decisions.

Watters said in-person learning is the best way to make sure all children have the same quality of education regardless of their socioeconomic background.

Jennifer Ross, a Courtenay-based teacher, said she doesn’t want to see a two-tiered system where the children of affluent families who can afford to hire a teacher get a better education than others. But, she said, parents need to put their family’s safety and their children’s education first.

“These are such unique times, we’ve never gone through something like this before,” she said. “Parents just have to follow their gut instinct and not worry that it’s compromising the public school system. The public school system will always find a way because it’s the main source of education for most people.”

Ross and her two business partners developed the Daily Wonder Home Learning Hub, a program to provide guidance to parents new to home schooling or those looking to set up learning pods. The regular cost is $1,990 a year, plus $250 per additional children, though Daily Wonder is offering a discount because the hub is still being developed.

Ross acknowledged that can be a major expense for parents but suggested that parents in a learning pod could split the cost, take turns providing instruction and avoid hiring a teacher.

The curriculum, for students Grades 1 to 7 and based on the Waldorf education philosophy, could be delivered in one or two hours a day, which, Ross said, gives flexibility to parents working from home or running a learning pod.

In-class instruction is set to resume Sept. 10 with students sorted into “learning groups.” Staff and students at middle and secondary schools will be required to wear masks on buses and in common areas and when they are outside their learning groups and cannot maintain an appropriate physical distance. The Education Ministry said it is providing $45.6 million to school districts for enhanced cleaning, handwashing stations, reusable masks and other supplies.

The B.C. Teachers Federation wants reduced class sizes and broader mandatory use of masks, along with a remote- learning option, especially for children with medical problems or those with vulnerable family members, and accommodations for immunocompromised teachers.

School districts have until today to submit their restart plans to the ministry for approval. The plans will be reviewed before the districts share the details with families on Aug. 26.

The Education Ministry said there is no substitute for in-class learning. It is encouraging parents to enrol their children as they normally would.

“If parents choose to not send their child for in-class instruction, they must enrol their child for online/distributed learning, or register them for home-schooling,” the ministry said. If there are 10 or more students receiving schooling in a group, the group must be certified as an independent school, it said.

“If there are fewer than 10 students and they are not enrolled in a public or independent school (either a brick and mortar school or a distributed learning school), then they must be registered as home schoolers in an independent or public school,” the ministry said.

“In this case the parents are entirely responsible for the education program.”

kderosa@timescolonist.com

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