Opinion: BC teachers’ calls to action for a new provincial government

Oct 23 2020, 6:30 pm

Written for Daily Hive by Teri Mooring, President of the BC Teachers’ Federation

For students across BC and around the world, 2020 will be the defining year of their childhoods. At home, at school and at play, their young lives will be forever marked by the coronavirus. Children are resilient, and those blessed with loving parents, physical health, and economic well-being will fare just fine in the long run. But those who are growing up in poverty, with diverse needs, or in vulnerable communities will be forced to face even more stress, risk, and trauma.

COVID-19 has both exposed and exacerbated the deep inequities in British Columbia. Ours is one of the wealthiest societies in history, yet too many children’s needs still go unmet.

Governments must act boldly, compassionately, and for the long term. As teachers, we dream that coming through the nightmare of this pandemic we will build a new society that is much fairer than the status quo our children and youth currently experience.

In a brief presented to the government last June, the BCTF asserted: “Schools are key public spaces of community and care. They must be protected and made more resilient both during and coming out of this public health crisis.”

Now more than ever, our schools need stable, adequate funding. Between 2001 and 2016, BC’s education funding relative to GDP dropped by nearly one third. As a result, BC still lags behind the Canadian average for per-student spending by about $1,800, down from over $2,000. Our students need and deserve funding at least equivalent to the national average.

School districts need additional funding to uphold public health and safety guidelines. That means hiring more teachers and support staff to decrease classroom density and allow for proper social distancing. It means hiring more custodial staff to maintain the higher levels of cleanliness required to keep everyone safe. And it means making personal protective equipment freely available to all students and staff who require it.

Even pre-pandemic, teachers across Canada were reporting a marked rise in mental health problems. In the current crisis, we even more urgently need funding to support a trauma-informed approach to mental health for both students and staff. This includes more school counsellors and greater access to training on trauma-informed practice.

According to a recent impact assessment by UNICEF Canada, “Thousands of children are at risk of abuse in their homes and online, as pressure and tensions increase, online supervision decreases, and predators seek to take advantage of the situation. This may increase the risk of youth homelessness, injury, and trauma.”

Without daily in-person contact with our students, teachers across BC have had many sleepless nights worrying about them, especially the vulnerable one in five growing up in poverty. For many of those kids, school is their only safe place, or the source of their only meal of the day.

Food insecurity has life-long impacts on child development, so we are appealing to government to fund a universal school meal program. At present, without a co-ordinated strategy, hungry students must depend on a fragile patchwork of initiatives that are inconsistently supported across the province. Shockingly, Canada is the only G-8 country without a guaranteed meal at school every day, and we believe that must change.

We’re also urging the provincial government to accelerate the $10-a-month childcare program. The historic decision in 2018 to work toward universal province-wide childcare has made an enormous difference for many families, but the number of spaces needs to be rapidly increased.

The pandemic forced us to teach in completely new ways. The demands for rapid skill-building in virtual learning have been immense and once again, have highlighted the inequities. Some children live in homes with multiple computers and extensive family libraries, while others have no access to learning resources at home. The digital divide must be eliminated for there to be equal opportunities to learn.

That’s why we would like to see the creation of a universal $10-a-month broadband service across BC, including the rural and remote areas that are now so poorly served. We believe it would be a sound public investment into a 21st-Century economy for BC to turn broadband into a public utility, providing affordable access for all.

In its impact assessment, UNICEF recommends: “Schools should work to reduce anxiety and ‘friction’ by keeping education continuity simple to engage with, eliminate exams where possible, and avoid a grading system that exacerbates school failure and exclusion.”

BC teachers couldn’t agree more. Now is the time to strengthen students’ connections to school, not increase their anxiety with needless standardized testing. The current government’s recent decision to postpone the Foundation Skills Assessment was welcome, but the next government should simply do away with it altogether, along with the secondary school Literacy and Numeracy Assessments.

Whichever party wins on October 24, we will continue to face many challenges on the public education scene. BC’s teachers look forward to working with government on re-evaluating pre-pandemic policies and building a new normal that is much more equitable for all.

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