You can’t send kids to school in the midst of a viral pandemic without seeing a few headlines involving COVID-19.
There’s no doubt that COVID was the single-biggest headline driver in education this past year – but a host of other stories rose to prominence, too.
As we usher in a new year, we take a look back at five of the stories that made the news on the New Westminster school front in 2021.
HEADLINE-MAKER OF THE YEAR: COVID IN THE CLASSROOM
What a year it has been – or two years, really, when we’re talking about the 2020/21 and 2021/22 school calendars.
The 2020/21 school year continued as it had begun in the face of the pandemic, with students grouped into “cohorts,” or learning groups, in an effort to minimize social contacts. At NWSS, students continued their learning on the quarter system, rather than semesters, as part of the school’s COVID plans.
The rise of variants of concern early in the new year prompted some provincewide changes to health and safety protocols in February, including expanded mask policies for middle and secondary school students and new protocols for phys ed and music. The New Westminster Teachers’ Union was lukewarm on the changes at the time, as teachers’ unions noted the new guidelines didn’t do anything to ensure fewer students in classrooms, to include teachers in contact tracing or to mandate better ventilation.
As it turned out, those issues weren’t about to go away.
Remember the rise of the Delta variant and the third wave? Then that whole brief shining moment, as summer began, when the province was looking ahead to a “near-normal” school year in the fall?
Enter the fourth wave. A new school year began in September amidst outcry from parents around the provincial announcement that it would no longer issue public, school-wide exposure notifications – a decision that was reversed a few weeks in to the school year.
With the province under increased pressure from parents and the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, an expanded mask mandate – requiring masks for all students from kindergarten through to Grade 12 – was introduced in October.
Public concern about the safety of schoolchildren – especially those too young to be vaccinated – has been at the forefront throughout the fall.
In New Westminster, a parental push to fundraise for HEPA filtration units came to a halt before it even got off the ground in September, after the school district said the units were not required. Ventilation has remained a talking point among those lobbying for more protections in schools.
But no COVID-related issue raised more heated debate than the question of whether vaccines should be mandatory for teachers and school staff.
The province declined to introduce a B.C.-wide mandate but offered guidance for school districts to follow if they opted to pursue their own policies.
New Westminster was among the first districts in B.C. to vote against such a mandate, announcing its decision Oct. 27 after a closed-door discussion.
The announcement prompted pleas from parents for the board to reconsider its stance.
It also indirectly led to the revelation of some of the first hard data about how many COVID-19 cases there have actually been in schools.
A background report outlining some of the health information the board used to arrive at its decision showed that, in the first six weeks of the school year, the Fraser Health region (Burnaby to Boston Bar) had seen 2,009 school-associated cases – 90% of them among students. It also showed 104 “clusters” in schools and said students were the primary drivers of in-school transmission.
The New Westminster school district also released data in November showing that, in the first eight weeks of the school year, the district had seen 42 school cases involving children and youth – including three clusters.
Exposure notifications have continued throughout the fall at a steadier and higher rate than in the previous school year. But numbers appear to have peaked in October and have begun to drop somewhat since. The district’s information shows it sent the highest number of notification letters in the month between Oct. 7 and Nov. 3, compared to the month before or the month after. A new batch of exposures then started to happen in early December, so there's no clear trend yet.
Now, of course, vaccines may begin to change the picture. Since the end of November, five- to 11-year-olds have been eligible for vaccination; as of Dec. 14, 28% of New Westminster children in that age group had received their first dose of vaccine.
But with the holiday season now here and the unknowns surrounding the Omicron variant at play, the question still lingers: How safe are children in B.C. schools?
It’s a debate that’s likely to rage on well into 2022.
IN THE NEWS: NEW SCHOOLS
January got started in style in the New Westminster school district when students at New Westminster Secondary School officially started classes in their shiny new facility.
The $106.5-million construction project – the largest of its kind in B.C. – was delayed by COVID-19, but the new school has finally become a reality. The Sixth Street facility boasts a host of noteworthy features – the sweeping Grand Commons space on the main floor, a giant triple gymnasium, a theatre with a stage matching the Massey facility, glass-walled classrooms grouped around learning commons spaces, and much more.
A long-awaited official opening ceremony, delayed by COVID restrictions, was finally held at the new NWSS in October.
Across town, the team involved in building the new Skwo:wech Elementary School (formerly Richard McBride) kept the threat of supply-chain delays at bay for most of the year. But, in the end, the project was held up by a combination of COVID-related supply issues and the fallout from the floods that took out transportation routes in B.C. Skwo:wech students had originally been poised to move into the $35-million facility in January 2022, after winter break, but that’s now been pushed back to an as-yet-unspecified later date.
Queensborough students, meanwhile, received some good news in the spring, when the B.C. government announced $20 million in funding for a 325-student expansion at Queen Elizabeth Elementary School. The project will include 13 new classrooms and child-care space, replacing the seven portables on the school grounds.
The need for new facilities hasn’t ended, however. With New Westminster growing rapidly, the school district is facing enrolment pressures on all sides – particularly in the downtown area. Key among its capital requests to the province are a new middle school and a new elementary school in the Fraser River zone (encompassing the central and western side of the city).
Will there be more good news coming in 2022? Fingers crossed.
IN THE NEWS: FROM McBRIDE to SKWO:WECH
Undoubtedly the most emotional school board meeting of the year took place on May 25, when trustees formally voted to rename Richard McBride Elementary School.
The new name? Skwo:wech. The Halq’eméylem word for “sturgeon,” it was the final choice of the committee tasked with renaming the school in preparation for the opening of a replacement for the existing 1929 school building.
It followed a lengthy renaming process, launched at the request of the school’s parent advisory council, that involved consultation with staff, students and community members and led to the submission of 276 name suggestions.
Qayqayt First Nation Chief Rhonda Larrabee lauded the board for taking the step in the spirit of reconciliation.
“We’ve lost so much, and to have the name brought forward, it will teach the children about resilience and a bit about the history of our people,” she said.
The school took on its new name as of Sept. 1, opening for the 2021/22 school year with the Skwo:wech Elementary banner on the front of the landmark old building.
IN THE NEWS: ANTI-RACISM EFFORTS
Following a commitment it made in 2020, the New Westminster school board forged ahead with its anti-racism initiatives in 2021.
The school district is working with Bakau Consulting to create an anti-racist framework and to build its efforts around JEDI work – that’s justice, equity, diversity and inclusion.
The district used surveys and focus groups to gather feedback from students, community members and staff. The consultants returned in November to provide an analysis of where the district can focus its efforts to address issues surrounding race and ethnicity; sexual orientation and gender identity; and disability, neurodivergence and accessibility.
Their report suggests steps such as building staff diversity across the district with intentional hiring; providing ongoing training for teachers and staff; and ensuring authentic inclusion by listening to those with lived experience. (It was a big report; you can find more information about it here.)
The district’s work will continue in the new year.
On a related note, the most heated debates of the year centred on the future of the school district’s longstanding partnership with the New Westminster Police Department – the key question being whether police should remain in schools at all, given the concern over the impact on BIPOC students and staff.
The board voted April 27 to end its school liaison officer program.
That decision was made after a couple of heated public meetings and led to substantial public reaction – both in favour of and opposed to the move.
The New Westminster Police Department will continue to have a relationship with the school district; what that will look like is a matter of evolving discussion.
IN THE NEWS: FINDING ALTERNATIVES
Not every student in the New Westminster school district goes to school in the traditional way.
Along with its 12 regular schools (eight elementary, three middle and one high school), the district also operates the Home Learners Program, plus the RCAP and POWER alternate secondary school programs.
The future of those programs came up for some pretty intense discussions this past year, as the district tried to settle on permanent homes for both.
The issue hit the headlines in January, when the New West school board considered a staff report on the fate of both programs. That report suggested relocating the Home Learners Program out of its current home in Hume Park (in the former elementary school building) to the grounds of Lord Tweedsmuir Elementary School in the West End.
It also recommended moving the RCAP/POWER programs out of their leased office space at Columbia Square Plaza and into the Hume Park building instead.
The idea didn’t sit well with the folks from either program.
Parents from the Home Learners Program lobbied to stay in Hume Park, where the forest, rivers, playground and trails are all used in student learning.
Meanwhile, those from the alternate secondary programs said that, although their rented office space isn’t ideal, the Columbia Square location is central – and that’s something the students would miss if the program were relocated to Hume Park.
In the end, the school district opted to leave both programs as-is for now, while considering more permanent, long-term locations for both in the future.
The district has designated the Hume Park property as a future long-term site for a middle school, to accommodate projected growth in Sapperton, so that property won’t remain available indefinitely.
For RCAP and POWER, meanwhile, the district opted to temporarily renew its lease at Columbia Square, but it remains on the hunt for a more stable long-term central location.
The school board and district staff have reiterated their commitment to both programs. But where, when and how will they find a place for them in a district that’s already squeezed for space?
Only time will tell.