The president of the New Westminster Teachers’ Union is feeling optimistic about the “near normal” school year that B.C. schools have been promised for September.
Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry held a media briefing June 17 to update the province’s plans for the 2021/22 school year.
The briefing included an announcement of $43.6 million in new funding: $25.6 million to bolster health and safety, Indigenous education and mental health supports, plus $18 million to address the learning impacts of the pandemic.
“I’m very optimistic about next year. I envision seeing school that’s almost normal,” said NWTU president Sarah Wethered.
Wethered said she and other teachers’ union local presidents are happy about the use of the phrase “near normal.”
“There’s recognition that we’re not going back to business as usual, which I think is important,” she said. “Some details still need to be worked out, so we’re going to see it as close to normal as possible.”
HOW WILL THE MONEY HELP NEW WEST?
Wethered was pleased to see the continued emphasis on cleaning schools and the fact that the government is providing funding for it within the health and safety allocations. Locally, she said, that fits with the continued push for daytime custodians to stay in New Westminster schools – something CUPE Local 409 (the union representing school support staff) has been lobbying for, and something the NWTU has supported.
“It was nice to see some money for that,” she said.
Wethered is hopeful that some of the money designated for mental health supports can be used to boost the number of counsellors in district schools and also to provide supports for staff, who she pointed out have also been affected by the trauma of the pandemic.
She was also pleased about the allocation of $18 million to directly support those students whose learning was most impacted by the pandemic – in particular those students who are most vulnerable for a variety of reasons. Once School District 40 gets its share of that money, she said, she hopes it will be used for direct support of students in the form of resources, teachers or education assistants.
“I would like to see that money being spent directly on students,” she said.
NOT JUST PANDEMIC RESPONSE
Wethered is embracing what she sees as a move away from strictly focusing on the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re moving from it being a pandemic response to it being a response for communicable diseases,” she pointed out.
Wethered said the key health and safety protocols that will remain in place – an emphasis on handwashing, daily health checks and a requirement for students and staff to stay home when sick – will be a benefit in the face of all viral illnesses, not just COVID-19.
She said this year is the first in her 27 years of teaching that she didn’t end up taking sick days for viruses.
“I always say that the snot monsters get me. Every year I get at least one cold,” she said.
“The cleaning protocols they’ve put in place and the hand hygiene – that just makes good sense.”
One change she’s less certain about is the possible end to the COVID-19 exposure letters that are now sent to school communities every time there’s a case associated with a school. It has not yet been decided whether those notifications will continue in the new school year.
“I’m not certain how I feel about not getting those notices,” Wethered said. “Even though every time I open one, I feel sick inside and I worry about the children and the staff, there’s something reassuring about knowing there’s a paper trail.”
Wethered said the loss of the notifications might be particularly challenging in a district such as Surrey, where exposures have continued at a high rate. In New Westminster, however, there have been very few exposure notices over the past few weeks – though Wethered said the notification letters still provide “reassurance” that health officials are on the job.
“I think we also have to trust that Fraser Health is going to do their job,” she said.
Wethered acknowledged this past year has been especially tough on people reaching milestones – like students who didn’t get traditional grad ceremonies, and retiring teachers who didn’t get a chance to mark the end of long careers with the traditional retirement dinner.
“I hope next year we have grad and an in-person retirement celebration and that it’s a return to those routines that we know – a return to those rites of passages that our children and our employees deserve,” she said.
As the school year counts down its final days, Wethered also extended her gratitude to the parents who have helped schools cope with the pandemic by doing daily health checks, encouraging masks and handwashing, and keeping their sick children home when needed.
“This is a multi-pronged approach to keeping our schools safe,” she said. “I acknowledge our teachers did a great job; our support staff – especially our custodians – did a great job, but parents also did a good job of supporting our school staff.”