Rob Fleming: Where’s the plan?

Public education teachers in B.C. upended everything last spring to do our part for public education, student safety, and public health. Almost overnight, we turned our dining room tables and laptop computers into emergency remote teaching stations. We hand-delivered materials to students at home. We organized car caravan parades to let our students know we care. We reached out to families. We went the extra mile to keep kids connected to their school. We did all of this, with little to no support from the government, on an urgent and responsive basis because we value public education so much.

The point of teachers (and other educators) doing all of this was to provide time for public health and public education to get prepared. We worked creatively and on overdrive so that leaders would have time to plan for the next steps of the pandemic. Fortunately for the province as a whole, public health is doing its part. Our province has successfully suppressed COVID-19 for now. Hopefully this will continue, even as global conditions change. Universal health care, public hospitals, contact tracing, and other measures are working for B.C.

But while public health has done a good job of slowing things down, and using the time to plan and prepare, public education has not. Our leaders continue to dither and delay. We are left without real plans. In place of real plans we are left with plans that are simply lists of nice words on paper but not additional resources and protections for schools. Real plans will make priorities, be based on measurable data, and have system-wide accountability and transparency built in. Realistic plans will put schools and classroom teachers in charge, have measures for local (school-based) decision making, and set guidelines based on how schools actually work.

Teachers are partly to blame for the government’s inaction. Why would leaders prepare and plan when teachers will just jump in and save the day, like we did last spring? Teachers are enablers of a system that undervalues education, educators, and students. But the real responsibility rests with the system’s leaders, who would rely on the easy way out (by just letting teachers try to carry the overall burden). When government sees 43,000 teachers respond to an emergency by totally upending everything, jumping in without resources or plans, and pull it off (at an emergency level) the government knows that it can produce amazing results without actually leading. Why lead, when teachers (and other educators) will lead for you? There’s a word for this: It’s called free-loading. That’s certainly not leadership. But it’s worse than that – because no matter how hard teachers try, you can’t keep equity in education without having proper plans in place.

Ask any teacher if the spring was sustainable and they will say “No.”

First, everything we achieved was built on relationships that started in the fall of last year. This fall, we will have new students in almost all of our classes. Moreover, many of these classes will not have learned as much as one third of last year’s curriculum. Kindergarten and Grade 1 will feel this in particular, especially in reading. Second, emergency remote teaching kept things going, but on an emergency basis only. Lots of students were simply left out of the measures. We teachers knew this because we saw it directly. Emergency remote teaching was meant to buy time, not to maintain public education at pre-COVID levels. Finally, if attendance remains optional, grades remain meaningless, and education continues to be devalued, then even more students will opt out or be left out of public education – due to a lack of planning and preparation on the part of government.

Where’s the plan for what comes next?

The bottom line is that no matter how prepared we are, there will be tradeoffs and less public education will be provided overall during COVID-19. Any plan will, either implicitly or explicitly, prioritize some students over others. Without a clear plan, it’s much likelier that vulnerable, disabled, and marginalized students will be the ones left out the most. That’s why a solid plan for public education is needed now.

Beyond prioritizing education for those who need support the most, plans must also protect student and educator safety, based on the mandate of public education. Public health sets minimum standards, many that are based on what’s practical for contact tracing. It’s aim is to keep hospitals open and to slow the spread to a more manageable level. Schools protect student health on an individual basis. As employers, schools must also provide employees with safe workplaces. Given this, plans should prepare schools to protect student health by safely reopening schools and should provide resources to support educators’ occupational health and safety.

Public education is essential. Students and families need access to public schools. Students, teachers, and other educators must be safe to learn at school. In-person instruction benefits the most students. Plans should be based on the reality of schools, the needs of students, and the knowledge of educators. We’ve had time to do this right. So, where’s the plan?