COVID back to school – A Tail of Two Reasons

The COVID back to school plans in virtually every North American political jurisdiction just don’t compute for me, but in British Columbia, the back to school plan is especially confounding. As a proponent of the use of educational technology, I have spent the majority of my career trying to get my colleagues to embrace technologies for instruction and bring their practice into the twenty-first century. Twenty years ago, the government realized that traditional bums in seat instruction no longer reflected society’s technicization, so teachers like me were charged with helping our colleagues modernize their instruction. The powers that be wanted teaching and learning to be more dynamic, flexible and personalized, to broaden the instructional and learning landscape and reach the unreachable; however, teachers have resisted this change over the years because they felt that bums in seat instruction was better for kids. Although there has been some uptake of new technologies for learning, the adoption of technology for teaching and learning has been moving at a snail’s pace in most educational settings, then along comes COVID 19…

The reality of today is we need to be embracing technology for good.

When it comes to online opportunities for our students, I think we should all agree … we want to make sure that they have every opportunity to put their best foot forward.

Ontario Education Minister Lisa Thompson

Under perhaps the most challenging circumstances in modern education history, teachers were forced to acquire the very skills the government has been urging teachers to embrace. No longer was bums in seat instruction possible, so the digitization of teaching and learning was adopted, and into the online world teachers ventured. As the school year ended, plans were made for the next, and we were well on our way to creating the very education system the government had been trying to get teachers to create for years. We were at the doorstep of a system that accepted and utilized blended, synchronous, and asynchronous learning systems. A system that was dynamic and responsive to students, families and community needs. Teachers moved further on modernizing their practice in three months than the previous ten years. Now, as COVID 19 settles in for long winters stay, the Government suddenly doesn’t want a flexible and responsive education system that would help ensure the safety of students and teachers? Suddenly face to face instruction is the only way to deliver the curriculum again? 

Parents, teachers, administrators and even kids are having difficulty understanding the rationale behind the return to school. The official word from Dr. Henry, British Columbia’s Chief Public Health Officer is that kids are better off in school and no one is arguing that, but should we be sending kids back to the very conditions we have been told to avoid for the past six months?

For many children in this province, they don’t have the resources to work virtually. For many children in this province, being at school is where they get health care. It’s a safe place for them. It’s a place where they can get psychological support, where they may get a meal.

Dr. Bonnie Henry, August 6th, 2020

Anyone in the know realizes that schools do far more than just educate. Depending on circumstances, kids can get access to all those things that Dr. Henry mentions. Schools have been the backbone of our communities for generations, and providing food, connecting kids to healthcare and ensuring kids are safe and secure both in and out of school is just part of a regular school day. Still, there is a bigger question here that has not been answered to my satisfaction. Why are we heading back to school in a pandemic so that schools can provide societal supports they were never designed to provide or even funded properly for?

If you are at all familiar with the history between education and government in British Columbia, you know that it hasn’t been very functional, and most of the contention has been around the funding of the school system. Educators are constantly saying there isn’t enough money, while the government (regardless of stripes) claims that there is more than enough money in the education system, so when Dr. Henry made her why we are sending kids back to school statement, it isn’t all that hard to imagine Carol James (finance minister) cringing as those words passed Dr. Henry’s lips. The image of schools ONLY educating children and little else is something all British Columbia Governments bank on. Preserving this “They only do education” narrative provides the government with the leverage to fund the education system at $1900 a year per child, less than the national average. When Dr. Henry publicly served up an alternate potentially expensive storyline that differed from the party line, the finance department couldn’t have been all that happy.

To get a better idea of what I am suggesting are the “real reasons” we are heading back to school, let’s do a little forensic dissection of  Dr. Henry’s statement. 

“For many children in this province, they don’t have the resources to work virtually.”

Dr. Bonny Henry August 6th, 2020

Simply put, not all districts are created equally, or perhaps I should say not all districts have the infrastructure needed to deliver curriculum to students virtually.

Prior to the pandemic, this inequality was a problem that the ministry was aware of, but hadn’t really put much effort into resolving. Once the pandemic hit, this inequality became blatantly obvious. If the ministry were to ensure all districts had the digital tools needed to deliver curriculum virtually for the 2020/21 school year, they would have had to make a significant and hurried investment to ensure the infrastructure and digital tools were available to all districts across the province. Since this is logistically impossible and financially unpalatable, it would appear that the ministry’s solution was to reduce all districts to the lowest common pedagogical denominator and decided that bums in-seat learning would be the way teaching and learning would be conducted this year. This would effectively absolve the ministry from making the necessary investment to ensure that virtual access to learning was equitable.

For many children in this province, being at school is where they get health care. It’s a safe place for them. It’s a place where they can get psychological support, where they may get a meal,”

Dr. Bonny Henry

This part of Dr. Henry’s statement is perhaps the most significant because it reveals an inconvenient truth about the state of child welfare in BC. If schools do not go back in, the lack of support for children and families outside the school system would be laid bare for all to see. As the situation currently stands, schools provide non-educational supports to children and families out of the education budget. In exchange, the government gets to pretend that the state of child welfare in BC is better than it really is because all the deficiencies are hidden in the school system. It is a budgeting shell game BC governments have been playing for years, and they would like the facade to continue.

The conclusion that this cynical 24-year teaching veteran can come to is that kids and teachers are going back to school because the BC government does not want to remedy all the shortcomings of a child welfare system. Secondly, they do not want to pay for the infrastructure and digital tools necessary to ensure access to learning is equitable across the province. 

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