BC School Restart Plan: To the politicians, get out of the way and let teachers do our job

The problem with the BC school restart plan is its lack of integrity. It claims to value students and education. It claims to keep students and educators safe. But rather than level with the public about the true costs of closing or opening schools, the plan is an attempted half measure.

Instead of addressing the actual costs and real value of reopening schools safely, the plan simply passes the costs down to students and educators and ignores the simple fact that unsafe education is simply not an option. Worse, it turns dollar costs into human costs, with students and educators paying the price of reopening – in terms of our own health and safety.

The teaching profession is clear: Schools should reopen. And schools can safely reopen. In fact, schools must reopen safely. But this requires resources. Density measures, PPE, and supports for individual students are worth the cost. We can do this. All that’s needed is the will, a plan, time, and resources to do it.

Keeping Schools Closed is Too Costly

We already know that closing schools is costly. Closed schools result in less learning and greater inequity, especially for marginalised and disabled students. When schools are closed, students who rely on in-person instruction for support, community, and safety pay heavily in terms of their learning and well-being. In addition, shuttering in-person instruction wreaks havoc on the economy and reduces supports for families. Families depend on schools. Students depend on schools. Schools are essential and, if safe, should remain open as a priority.

The good news for BC is that we are well-positioned to reopen schools this fall. The virus has been suppressed and public health measures are working. Community spread is contained. Given this, contact tracing is possible. With an only 1% infection rate overall, effective contact tracing measures working, and low community spread, BC can safely reopen schools. But teachers must have a voice in how schools are reopened, because our ethics as professionals require more than contact tracing and health mitigation measures. Individual risks to individual students and educators must guide policy and practice. That’s why teachers want masks for all students and educators, PPE to be provided, density to be addressed, and issues like air flow and ventilation to be taken seriously.

Teachers also want plans to be workable and realistic, which is why we insist that the actual experts of education drive the process. Together, we can safely reopen schools. Let’s fix the plan and provide the time and resources required to get schools safely reopened – as soon as possible. We can do this, especially when the politicians get out of the way.

Safely Reopening Schools is Possible and Worth It

Safely reopening schools is certainly possible. With the lessons learned in other countries and here at home, we can apply measures for keeping schools safe during COVID-19. We already know that distancing, air flow, barriers, PPE, and hand washing all reduce risk, limit spread, and provide protection. Requiring anyone with symptoms to stay home is also essential to safety. (This requires that extra supports be in place for those who need them.) We know that testing, tracing, and isolating all work to help suppress the virus, and we rely on public health to put these measures in place. And we know that science and evidence-based processes should drive mitigation measures, not mere wishful thinking.

For Teachers, There is Never a Choice Between Education and Safety

For the teaching profession, there can never be a choice between safety and the reopening of schools. For schools to reopen, schools must be safe. Teachers are duty-bound, as teaching professionals, to protect students’ safety. Each teacher is responsible for each individual student in their school and classroom. This makes teachers different from officials whose job is to reduce infection, control spread, and provide mitigation – after an outbreak has occurred. Our job is to provide safe learning environments, for all students and at all times.

Teachers do recognize that there is always some risk and that total safety is not possible. We are realistic about this and we can weigh the risks and the benefits of activities and programs, but we must always do this with our students and families. When we increase risks we always seek informed consent and work with families to meet their needs and address their concerns. We do this already, such as for planning field trips, conducting science experiments, supervising games and activities, and designing schools and playgrounds. We build learning environments that are designed for safety and that are balanced with the values that education supports (such as the values of learning, growth, inclusion, community, etc.).

The BC restart plan falls short because it lacks the safety measures that could be put in place with enough time, enough resources, and enough political will. The first, and simplest, measure would be simply requiring (with reasonable accommodations in place) that everyone in a school wear a mask, and that masks always be provided if requested. Masks aren’t perfect, but there is growing evidence that masks reduce spread and provide protection. They are helpful. After this, actual PPE could be provided, especially where needed most. The provision of N95 masks and face shields would protect students and educators alike. Clear guidelines on distancing (i.e. the space to people ratio) would help, too. Schools should be empowered to find alternative spaces to work in and funding should be provided to make this happen.

Teachers and other school-based leaders should be provided with the resources, time, and standards to implement a safe reopening of schools. We already know how to work together to put children’s health and safety first. We already know what works for our community. We have the knowledge, skills, and motivation to make it work. We are already well-versed in adapting to complex situations, providing accommodations for those who need them, and working together to meet students’ educational and safety needs. It’s time for the politicians and outside “experts” to get out of the way and to let the real experts, teachers and other school-based leaders, figure this out. With a clear mandate for schools to reopen safety, the time to plan for this, and the resources to do it, we will come up reasonable plans that deliver on both safety and education. To the politicians, get out of the way and let us do our job.