COVID confusion: B.C. lags behind other jurisdictions in setting post spring break education plans

With the end of spring break looming on Monday, B.C. still hasn't revealed how students will continue their education as they and their parents struggle to deal with COVID-19 school shutdowns.

On March 17, the B.C. government announced the suspension of in-class instruction in a bid to halt the spread of the virus. It's asking parents to check its website for updates on how public education will continue next week.

The designated "frequently asked questions" page on the site says school districts have been asked to put learning opportunities in place for students "as soon as practically possible, no later than mid-April."

And "principal updates" being sent to some parents state that while home learning plans continue to be developed, teachers will be contacting children by "April 3 or sooner."

In contrast, Alberta and Washington state are far ahead of B.C.— each announcing clear educational plans and guidelines on March 20 and 23 respectively.

Concerned B.C. parents say our province could take a lesson from our neighbours.

"I worry about parents panicking with little information to go on," said Krista Sigurdson of Vancouver.

Sigurdson, 40, has two young boys — a six-year-old in Grade 1, a 10-year-old in Grade 5.

"And I worry about what a slow roll-out is going to mean," she says. "Any mention of a date in April ... is very late."

Colin Brumelle/ Submitted

'Taking a measured approach'

B.C.'s Ministry of Education says, in effect, it's working on it.

And it says plans have yet to be finalized because school districts have been on spring break.

"(They) will be engaged in planning as soon as they return from their scheduled breaks — though many school districts have already begun," the ministry wrote in an email to CBC News.

The Vancouver School Board says it's "taking a measured approach" and "working hard to plan for students' needs," noting "we have taken the time necessary to be thoughtful in our decisions,"— and it asks for patience.

A message sent to school-based staff on Wednesday stated principals and vice-principals would have an online meeting Thursday to continue planning for March 30, with a staff update to be sent out Friday.

Maggie MacPherson/CBC

Krista Sigurdson says that's not good enough.

"This sort of idea that there's been people on vacation is not entirely genuine because people could see what's happening," she says, "so to be honest that explanation is hard to wrap my head around."

Alberta ahead of the game

Compare B.C.'s approach to that of our provincial neighbour.

In Alberta, the education ministry clearly set out a game plan 10 days before most students there were set to resume their education.

It spelled out specific goals: Teachers will be required to assign a set number of hours of work per student each week.

Kindergarten to Grade 6 students will be given an average of five hours each week and teachers "must work with students and parents to deliver these materials."

Grades 7 to 9 will be assigned 10 hours of work per week and Grades 10 to 12 will receive approximately 18 hours of work.

Scott Neufeld/CBC

"Learning continues to be teacher-directed", said Colin Aitchinson, a spokesperson for Alberta's minister of education. "This can include the development of paper course packages, telephone check-ins or online learning."

Washington's 'flexible instruction'

Washington state has issued similar guidelines.

Teachers there have been told they must "set goals using knowledge of each student, deliver "flexible instruction," including printed materials, phone contacts, email, technology-based virtual instruction or a combination" to meet diverse student needs.

And teachers must also "engage families" and provide translations as necessary, since parents are considered "critical partners."

Washington state was one of the initial COVID-19 hotspots in North America, with a rash of deaths in a Puget Sound care home.

As a result, the state took the lead on how to provide schooling during the pandemic crisis.

'Guardrails' set-up for U.S. educators

The strategy was co-authored by Dr. Michaela Miller, the state's deputy superintendent of public instruction.

Washington Office of Public Instruction

Miller says "guardrails" were needed so Washington school districts knew early on how to proceed.

She's careful not to criticize B.C.'s slower response.

"My hat's off to everybody that is really grappling with these issues at a state level right now or a provincial level," she said.

'Sense of distrust'

Krista Sigurdson is a little less forgiving.

Maggie MacPherson/CBC

While Alberta and Washington have clearly put the onus on teachers to contact students and formulate remote education plans, she says B.C. has been keeping parents in the dark.

"I'm concerned about my family having to accomplish some sort of home schooling ... that isn't tailored to their particular needs," she said.

And that uncertainty has eroded her confidence in B.C. school officials.

"This sort of sense of distrust with powers that be, it's is very very, very unfortunate," she said.

Maggie MacPherson/CBC

 

CBC Vancouver's Impact Team investigates and reports on stories that impact people in their local community and strives to hold individuals, institutions and organizations to account. If you have a story for us, email impact@cbc.ca.