B.C.’s schools are planning possible switch to online learning as threat of staff shortages looms

As most K-12 students across the province spend an extra week home after the holidays, administrators and teachers are busy formulating backup plans should large numbers of staff call in sick due to COVID-19 exposures and infections.

Last week the province announced a staggered return to school in January due to the rapid spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant in B.C., and administrators say they’ve been told to use this time to prepare contingency plans.

“We’re in a very different kind of pandemic now and it came on very suddenly,” said Minister of Education Jennifer Whiteside.

“We can anticipate, given what other industries are experiencing in terms of the impact on the workforce, that we may well experience an impact … in education that may be disruptive.”

Each school district will develop its own contingency plans, but to give parents an idea of what they could expect, we spoke with B.C.’s largest: Surrey.

According to district superintendent Jordan Tinney, Surrey schools will go into a “functional closure” once there aren’t enough staff to provide proper care and education for students.

Functional closures aren’t new, he says, adding they often happen due to unexpected events like snow days, power outages or water line breaks.

“I think what’s different is those are all events we can predict,” he said.

“Knowing what we know about Omicron, the province believes you can anticipate wide-scale absenteeism,” he added.

“So they are saying use this time to actually plan … if you did have to close this school for a period of five or seven days, what would that look like?”

Phased closures

In Surrey, functional closures would be implemented in three “phases” over three days.

Day 1, Tinney says, is “inception day” — when administrators determine there are not enough teaching staff, and not enough administrators, caretakers, support staff and bus drivers. In this case, the school would inform parents and guardians of the closure.

There isn’t a minimum number of staff to indicate when a functional closure would kick in, with schools deciding whether staffing levels are sufficient to provide proper instruction and care.

“Bottom line is, do we have enough to supervise and provide instruction and to keep the school clean and working?” said Tinney.

Functional closures in the Surrey school district would see an entire school shift to online learning if there aren’t enough staff to provide proper care and education. (Ben Nelms)

Day 2 is a designated preparation day for teachers to move to online education, when the school will help ensure students have the materials and hardware to learn virtually from home. Students, essentially, would have the day off.

By Day 3, online instruction would begin for students in the affected school.

The functional closure would last until staffing levels bounce back, says Tinney, which he predicts would take around five to seven days. 

Jatinder Bir, acting president of the Surrey Teachers Association, said it would be a difficult task but one that could soon be necessary.

“We [wouldn’t] have the proper support to support our kids that come to school. And so, therefore, you would have to implement a functional school closure,” Bir told CBC’s Gloria Macarenko on Tuesday.

‘Everybody wants kids to be in school’

Not every district is planning for the potential closures of entire schools. 

Winona Waldron, president of the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association, says it is considering having only affected classes move to online learning when a teacher is unavailable in-person.

“Everybody wants kids to be in school. We all want to go to school and to not be teaching online,” said Waldron. “But how do we mitigate risk at the same time?”

Regardless of what a functional closure will look like in Victoria, Waldron says inconveniences are likely and they’re an unfortunate reality of the current pandemic.

She adds that missing school, for both staff and students, will have an impact on educational programming.

“I think we need to be aware that we can’t get through all the curriculum, possibly,” she said. “There’s going to be student absences … and that has an effect.”

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