B.C. parents and educators have mixed views about the idea of extending the winter break as a way of tamping down COVID-19 case numbers in the province.
The discussion comes as Alberta students in Grades 7 to 12 prepare to begin at-home learning next week. Students up to Grade 6 will attend classes until Dec. 18, and then students in all grades learn at home from the end of the winter break until Jan. 11.
B.C.’s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, was asked last week whether she had given any thought to starting the winter break earlier. She said transmission rates are lower in schools than in other parts of the community and it is important for families and children to have in-person learning, but health officials are looking at all of their options and the data.
“We know that schools … are a reflection of what’s happening in our community. So, we’re looking at what are the measures that help us reduce risk in our communities and therefore protect our schools more,” Henry said.
“I think science will dictate as to the direction that the provincial health officer will take, and at this point it seems like the safest place is to have kids in school,” he said.
B.C. Teachers’ Federation president Teri Mooring said the union is not taking a position on whether to extend winter break. Instead, they’re pushing for more stringent safety measures to prevent schools from closing due to outbreaks.
Those measures include mask wearing for all students age 10 and older, including in the classroom, and reducing class sizes to 15 in Fraser Health, where COVID-19 case counts have been consistently high, by using a combination of at-home and in-class learning.
Right now, students in secondary schools must wear masks in common areas such as hallways, and they’re not required for elementary students.
“Our view is even if we prevent a few people from getting ill and contracting COVID-19 and there’s a few students and staff that are protected from that, that’s worth it. It’s worth it to prevent in-school transmission from happening rather than contact-tracing after the fact,” Mooring said.
Some parents want their kids stay in school, while others want more at-home learning or a longer break from being in class.
Joel Wood has two children, one of whom is in Grade 3. Since cases are relatively low in the B.C. Interior — he is in Kamloops — and new public safety measures have been introduced provincewide, he would like to see the normal break from school.
“It is the only opportunity for my older kid to see her friends,” he said.
Alannah Sheriland, who has a first-grader doing a blended program of in-person and at-home learning in Surrey, believes schools should return to remote or online learning opportunities to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Her child is immunocompromised.
“We have had three exposure notices, with one 14 days after the fact. It’s too much of a risk for my family to continue attending school as it is. I fully support extending the break,” she said.
Gabriel Bauman’s two sons did well in online schooling this spring, and he would love to see school break early for the holidays and then return to mostly remote learning in January.
“Classrooms should be for people whose parents need them so they can work,” he said.
Other parents say they aren’t waiting for a decision from the province and are pulling their kids out of school early.
Port Coquitlam’s Kimberly Coates said her daughter’s school has done an excellent job with COVID precautions and communications, and there have been no reported cases at her school. However, one advantage to a longer winter break would be an emotional break for her nine-year-old from dealing with the virus at school, though they do also follow recommendations and restrictions at home.
Coates said no matter what happens, her family is flexible and prepared to take any changes to the school schedule in stride.
Stephanie Higginson, president of the B.C. School Trustees Association, doesn’t see any benefit to changing the length of the winter break to keep kids out of schools, whether that involves remote learning or simply a longer vacation.
“Despite the rise in cases in our general population right now, schools are actually very, very safe places for our students and our staff to be,” Higginson said.
“There’s a very good layer of protection, our safety plans are working. It’s when we start gathering in places where there are no safety plans that COVID is being transmitted in B.C. So what that tells me is that our schools are safe, our plans are working and that we don’t need to consider interrupting the face-to-face instruction that our kids are getting.”
During a briefing last week, Higginson said she was told that since schools opened in September there had been only 12 cases of in-school transmission inB.C, even though 650,000 to 700,000 people are involved in the Kindergarten to Grade 12 system every day.
Instead of adding to school safety plans, Higginson said, it’s important to focus on making sure that the existing plans are being implemented consistently, “because they’re working.”
However, Higginson said such decisions are made by the provincial health officer and if changes were made to the winter break or in-person learning, they would be implemented.
Shawn Chisholm, executive director of the Federation of Independent Schools in B.C., agreed with Higginson that protocols have been effective and schools should remain open.