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Sonia Furstenau: Plan for reopening schools leaving too many students behind

It is hard to imagine the burden on decision makers who are having to determine the steps we take in the midst of a global pandemic. The considerations they can weigh and prioritize would seem both limitless and relentlessly shifting.
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Green Party MLA Sonia Furstenau

It is hard to imagine the burden on decision makers who are having to determine the steps we take in the midst of a global pandemic. The considerations they can weigh and prioritize would seem both limitless and relentlessly shifting.

As a parent, an educator, and member of the B.C. Legislative Assembly, I have some concerns about the province’s current back-to-school plan because it gives parents, students, and teachers a stark choice: Be willing to be in the classroom in person, or forfeit your connection to your school community.

Fourteen-year-old Grace articulated what this choice means for her: “I have underlying health issues, and so I can’t be in the classroom in the fall, and I’m devastated that this means that I lose my connection to my school, my friends, and my teachers.”

Telling students who can’t or won’t go back into their classrooms in September – whether it’s due to their own health issues or the health issues of a family member – to sign up for online learning through a distributed-learning program is an insufficient response to the many different realities people are experiencing right now.

Students who don’t feel they can go back into the classroom also don’t want to lose the connection to their school community.

For the teachers who feel too much at risk to consider in-person teaching, they also face being disconnected from their school communities, and from the students with whom they have connections.

As this plan is still coming together, and as we see rising rates of COVID-19, there is still the time and opportunity to take into account the concerns of students, teachers, and parents to determine how we can better establish and maintain the strong community connection that schools deliver for everyone.

A hybrid approach that creates a widened school community moves us towards the two outcomes we should be striving for: Preventing transmission and keeping school communities intact.

Teachers would teach either in-class or online, not both.

This would also help to ensure that classroom teachers are not laid off in September, due to lower numbers of students returning for in-class learning.

The teachers could coordinate their efforts to ensure that grade-level delivery is consistent for the mixed in-class and online cohorts – and even find ways occasionally to bring all of the students into the classrooms via online communication tools, allowing for connection between peers to happen, even if it can’t happen in person.

Having dedicated in-class and online teachers would address the challenges that teachers had in June, as they tried to juggle both at the same time. It would also provide the option for teachers who are in high-risk groups to be able to continue teaching within their established school communities.

Coordination between the two teaching cohorts can be built into the plan: The creation of teacher pods, with some in-school and some online, would further enhance connection and consistency of learning experiences for students.

By having the online cohorts, the pressure on the in-class groups diminishes. This will help to make social distancing much easier to achieve for the in-class students and teachers, by likely reducing the number of individuals in a classroom.

Students who are attending in-person would have the ability to join the online group if they have to stay home because of illness – thereby encouraging students not to come to school if they are unwell, and providing them with uninterrupted instruction while they are home.

Students who are in the online cohort may be able to reconsider between terms of the school year about attending in-person. The teacher cohorts would allow for more ability for mid-year adjustments between the two realms.

The COVID-19 pandemic is unpredictable. We need to be flexible and adaptable, keeping in mind the importance of what our long-term goals are: Prevention of transmission and strengthening of community.

Sonia Furstenau is the MLA for Cowichan Valley, a ­former teacher, and a parent.