New West teachers' union raises questions about the return to school

'I totally trust Dr. Bonnie,' says the local union president - but unanswered questions about how the new 'learning cohort' plan will work are numerous as teachers and administration start planning for September

The New Westminster Teachers’ Union has more questions than answers right now about B.C.’s back-to-school plan announced this week.

Teachers are poised to head back to school for another full year of in-class instruction starting Sept. 8, under the plan unveiled by Education Minister Rob Fleming and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry on July 29. At a press conference announcing the plan, Fleming and Henry were joined by Stephanie Higginson, president of the B.C. School Trustees Association, and Andrea Sinclair, president of the B.C. Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils.

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Conspicuous by its absence was the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, which issued a press release calling the restart plan a “work in progress” and asking for more time and more planning before schools reopen.

Sarah Wethered, president of the New West Teachers’ Union, noted the BCTF is looking for more answers about what the new plan – which revolves around the creation of “learning groups,” or cohorts, to help limit social contact in schools – will mean in practice.

“I totally trust Dr. Bonnie; she’s done a wonderful job managing this pandemic,” Wethered said. “We need to trust that Dr. Bonnie has done her homework. … However, I think it was very telling that the BCTF wasn’t there at the press conference, and they still have some questions and concerns about the cohort model and how it will work.”

The teachers’ paid school year starts the same day students return to class; Wethered said delaying the return of students for even a week would go a long way to helping teachers feel confident about whatever plans are put into place to accommodate provincial directives.

For Wethered, who’s a teacher-librarian at New Westminster Secondary School, the questions about the new model are so numerous that she’s almost not sure where to start.

She points out that NWSS, with 2,000 or so students, is one of those schools facing added complications because of its large student population.

“Space is already crowded there, and if you do the quick math, you’re looking at nine to 10 cohorts, so how will that work?” she said. “I see that as a big challenge, how to deliver education at the high school.”

At the secondary school level, Wethered noted programs like athletics, music, band and drama have extra complications in terms of physical distancing and the safety of students and staff.

“That also needs to be figured out. The information only came out yesterday, so it will be on our radar that we have to figure out how to deliver programs like music,” Wethered said, adding that the performing arts and athletics programs at NWSS are “outstanding” and are often a key part of the school experience for students.

At the elementary and middle school level, Wethered said, dividing students and staff into cohorts of no more than 60 may be relatively easy at some of the district’s smaller schools. But she noted it could be a challenge at locations such as Glenbrook Middle School, where teaching teams include three or four teachers in a pod.

“So now they’re going to have to divide that. How will they do that?” she asked.

It could also pose logistical challenges at other schools – at Richard McBride Elementary, for instance, where much of the school grounds is currently occupied by construction of the new school; and at all the schools that currently have portables.

“Most of our schools are operating at full capacity,” Wethered pointed out, noting reconfiguring classes and student groupings could be a challenge.

Another major question mark for Wethered centres on those teachers who cover elementary classroom teachers’ prep time. As it stands now, the teachers’ collective agreement specifies set prep time minutes each week during the school day, and those minutes are covered off by a variety of other teachers – teacher-librarians, music teachers, art specialists or P.E. teachers, depending on the school.

Typically, Wethered said, those specialist teachers see all the students in the school – something that doesn’t align with the idea of limited “cohorts.” And there’s an added layer of complication for those teachers who use a separate classroom, such as a music room, as a base to teach every class in the school – meaning all students would pass through the same space, without necessarily enough time to thoroughly clean the room between classes.

“How will that prep time be given?” Wethered questioned. “How will students use the library? At NWSS we frequently have 60 to 90 students in the library. If the bubble is 120, how will that work with 2,000 students?”

Complicating the issue is the matter of teachers on call who cover for those teachers who call in sick.

“How will they enter into that bubble of 120 or 60?” Wethered asked.

Moreover, there’s likely to be increased demand for teachers on call this year, now that health and safety directives mean teachers will not be allowed to report to work with any cold or flu-like symptoms.

“I have been one of those teachers who has been sick but has shown up because if I don’t, my job won’t be covered,” Wethered said, adding that’s common across all schools. “Just trying to find enough teachers on call could be an issue.”

Timetables and scheduling will also need to be reworked for all the district’s schools to accommodate the learning cohorts, Wethered pointed out – hopefully, she said, that won’t require a giant redo, but some schools (such as NWSS) stand to be more complicated than others.

Which isn’t to say the picture is all bleak.

Wethered said the New West district has a lot working in its favour, including the fact that the teachers’ union has always worked collaboratively with the school district and with CUPE, the union representing support staff.

“We are fully committed to working with senior admin and CUPE to making the schools as safe as possible and to ensure the safety and well-being of all students and staff in New West,” she said, adding the three groups have been working very closely together since the onset of the pandemic in March. “We’ve always had that collaborative model here in New West, and I think that’s one of our strengths.”

Wethered and her local vice-president will be meeting with senior school district administration next week to start coming up with a plan, she said, and that’s likely the first of many meetings this summer to take care of all those unanswered questions.

Two NWTU representatives are also part of the working groups the B.C. Ministry of Education has set up to guide the school process, and Wethered said those reps will help to ensure that the needs of both New Westminster and the province as a whole will be met.

“Things are very early in the stages of planning, and I trust that the school district will ensure that all stakeholders – the teachers, all of our staff, the parents, the students – will know as soon as we know what it’s going to look like,” she said.

 

 

 

 

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