Estimates Debate: Ministry of Education

MLA Sonia Furstenau

Trancript 2CSA:1610-1650

Hon. R. Fleming: Nice to see you again, Committee Chair.

To the member's question, I want to begin just by thanking her for bringing those two pretty remarkable and impressive young women to a meeting that we had in downtown Vancouver. It was some time ago now, but I am pleased to say that as a result of that meeting, we were able to take some of their suggestions and others we got from different student forums that are interested in healthy relationships, sexual education and issues around consent. They were able to give very valuable information to the ministry that helped us develop a guide called Supporting Student Health.

The guide was developed for both elementary and high school teachers. It focuses primarily on sexual health and mental health. It includes topics around consent and safer sex. Indeed, I think there was a gap in the physical and health education curriculum that needed to be addressed. Also, teachers were also requesting the kinds of things that are in the Supporting Student Health guide to be more effective at addressing those parts of the curriculum in PHE.

We've also, in continuing that, looked at additional opportunities for older kids. This was a point I took from those two young women who I met with, along with yourself, around mandatory PE class, as we used to call it. PHE class ends in grade 10. We're looking at career life education to help also add some content that will reach grade 11 and 12 students.

I know that there's been a significant debate and some really good leadership amongst post-secondary college and university presidents with their student support teams, where they had some very terrible incidents that put a spotlight on how healthy relationships…. Issues around consent with partners were leading towards things like sexual assaults and unacceptable behaviours on campuses and off campus. So that's an area for ongoing further development in grades 11 and 12.

That Supporting Student Health guide, if the member hasn't had an opportunity to see it, is something that we could certainly, outside of estimates, send to her attention.

S. Furstenau: It's great to be here in Education estimates. I want to pick up where the last question left off, but before I do that, I want to just really commend the Minister of Education, the school districts, principals and teachers, who have really stepped up in this time and done the very best they can in these really difficult conditions of COVID-19. From our experience, in our valley, the school district has just been remarkably responsive, first in dealing with issues like ensuring that children and families are getting meals and food and then really meeting the educational needs of students in this time. I want to just say thank you to all of the people that made that happen.

Following up on the member for North Vancouver–Seymour's question, there's a video that's making the rounds. It's a public service advertisement from New Zealand. And it's focusing on the risk of young children accessing pornography, without the kind of parental discussions around expectations of what are healthy sexual relationships and consent, as the minister was just talking about.

I think that in this era of Internet culture, studies are showing that…. One Swedish study shows that 98 percent of all 16-year-old boys and 54 percent of 16-year-old girls have seen pornography and that the sexualized content in pornography is often quite violent, particularly towards women.

Here in B.C., we had a consultation with an expert in this field, and he says that research shows that children refrain from speaking about pornography with their parents. Parents are unaware that their children are exposed to it. As more and more of our work and learning moves online, we see increases in domestic violence.

So my question. To follow up on the previous question to the minister, are there specific efforts or specific work being done on teaching children about sexual relationships but with the recognition of the access to really explicit digital content that children are probably seeing right now? What's being done to address that in particular?

Hon. R. Fleming: Thank you to the member for the question. She may have caught the discussion with the member for North Van–Seymour. We talked about a resource that was very recently developed and made available to both elementary and secondary school teachers, the Supporting Student Health guide, which fills in a lot of gaps in topical areas around consensual relationships, healthy relationships, online safety and cyberbullying as well as safe sex practices.

I think the emphasis now that's in the physical and health education on healthy relationships is a good emphasis to have in the school system. There is specific content about the responsible use of technology by students in the physical and health education curriculum now. As I've mentioned, it does deal with topics like sexting and other related topics.

I know in practice that schools often have a relationship with organizations that are community based and that come in and specifically do workshops and speak to students about some of the issues she raised with pornography and violence and how that affects students' mental health and the perceptions of healthy relationships and those sorts of things. There has been a big emphasis on social media training awareness through a number of programs in the ministry that I think has been really been valuable.

Maybe if I could take something away from the member's question, it would be, as I regularly speak with the B.C. Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils and know their president very well, to see if this might be an area of focus that they would wish to develop further with the ministry. I think she raises a very good point.

We also engaged young people who helped us write and develop the ministry social media guidelines that are now included in the curriculum. We would probably look to engage young people again around the readily available scourge of pornography through digital devices and how that is impacting the mental health of students and the safety of, in particular, female students at school and see if young folks that advise the ministry on a regular basis and BCCPAC would like to work with us on putting an additional emphasis there.

S. Furstenau: Thanks to the minister for that response.

As you point out, there are PACs that are doing great work at bringing in some really terrific educators. Kerri Isham up in Cowichan Valley is an excellent example. I think that, hopefully, the goal would a consistency across all the districts — that students would be getting that level of really high-quality education on this front.

I really appreciate his response and the steps he's talking about taking. It's really great.

I'm going to switch gears and kind of go back to umbrella questions here. Apologies if these have been touched on by the official opposition critics. We're doing our best to kind of stay on top of things, but with a caucus of two, it can be a bit tricky.

Clearly, this pandemic has had deep and significant impacts on education in B.C. We know that teachers have done a great job under very trying circumstances, but there are a lot of concerns. I'm aware that the BCTF and the province are talking about approaches to the fall and how to ensure that teachers aren't stretched so thin trying to juggle both the in-class and the online learning that we might be facing again in the fall.

I guess my first question is: does the province intend to hire more staff to accommodate for both the in-person and online learning? If so, how many more teachers and other staff?

Hon. R. Fleming: Thank you to the member from Cowichan. I think there are a lot of elements to her question there. At first glance, it was straightforward enough. But things have become very complex, and we have learned very well on the fly. I appreciate her remarks earlier thanking all the herculean efforts from teachers, support staff and administrators — principals and vice-principals — to keep families and kids safe, to successfully reopen schools on a part-time, limited basis for the last four weeks, which has been, I think, fantastic and a testament to their commitment, their energy and their caring to be able to do so.

I would say that in terms of staffing levels and COVID response, what we've asked districts to do is to make a note of any additional COVID-related expenses that they have encountered in terms of operating under this pandemic, as well as savings. Because, of course, some expenses were reduced for services that were suspended.

We don't obviously direct school districts to directly hire. They're the employer. Some of them have made shifts in their employment practices.

What we did do though, as a ministry, is we did direct every school district to work in close consultation and collaboration with local teachers associations on the issue of workload. So I think the member was getting at this idea of trying to sustain both an in-person teaching practice as well as continuing to serve the remote distance learners.

We're at the stage right now where we're learning everything that we experienced in June to have a stronger restart in September. Of course, we're on track, through the incredible leadership of Dr. Bonnie Henry and the provincial health office, to have a much stronger restart in September. I think we will benefit immeasurably from having gone into what we call stage 3, as I said, for the last four weeks of the school year. The aim is to have as many kids back safely as possible after Labour Day. September 8 is the first day of school next school year.

The science of the epidemic will inform what we're able to do. Districts are planning for a number of contingencies that will fit the assessment of where we're at in terms of community transmission and how well the pandemic is being managed.

S. Furstenau: Thanks to the minister for that answer. Questions always tend to be more complicated than they seem on the surface, I guess.

Further to that, can the minister let us know what he thinks the expected changes to the ministry's budget will be to COVID-19? Will there be more money in order to accommodate the additional resources needed to ensure, for example, equity for at-home instruction?

Hon. R. Fleming: Thank you to the member for the question. The most succinct answer I could probably give this afternoon is that all school districts are working within the Budget 2020 $6.7 billion allocation out there into the field. They're part of the estimates today. We're working with the B.C. Association of School Board Officials, the secretary-treasurers and other administrators, on tracking costs, as I mentioned earlier — additional costs related to the pandemic for supplies, for other modifications.

So districts are tracking those right now. I wouldn't say we have a consistent idea of whether there are additional upside costs at this point yet. We also know that those would be offset, to some extent, by potential savings from services that were suspended — transportation, for example, and those sorts of things.

Once we continue to work in this fiscal year with the BCASBO, who represent the school districts, on what it all looks like, we would, on that basis, have a discussion with the Ministry of Finance —look at additional opportunities, for example, for the Ministry of Education to play a role in the economic recovery of British Columbia overall. I can say that some of those discussions are happening, proposals being developed currently, where our ministry will, in fact, play a role in that regard.

It's probably an ongoing conversation that I'm certainly willing to have with the member in the months ahead.

S. Furstenau: Yeah, it's an important and ongoing conversation. Of course, education is so essential in a time like this when we are going to have to learn a lot of new skills, new ways of doing things. That learning very much starts in our education system.

On the COVID topic, in a related way…. There's an intersection of a particular type of student, a student who may be vulnerable and may have health or disability issues that mean that as long as we're in this pandemic, that student is maybe not safe or comfortable to go into an in-class learning environment but at the same time may not have the resources to really effectively further their education at home.

It might be a lack of access to high speed. I know other members have asked about this high-speed Internet or lack of access to materials. I do know that school districts have stepped up in this time, but I'm just wondering if there's a bit of a longer plan — given that we don't know how long we're going to be in this pandemic situation — for the ministry to be really focusing on promoting inclusion for these particularly vulnerable students who will be working from home.

Hon. R. Fleming: Just to go back to the previous question, I did want to say something about the budget and one of the signals we sent that was most important. I mentioned that we telegraphed out to districts that the $6.7 billion in Budget 2020, knowing that the world had changed to a significant degree after we'd tabled that in February 2020, would remain constant.

I think that stands in pretty stark contrast to some other jurisdictions in Canada. It's not to pick on anyone in particular, but Alberta, next door to us, removed about $150 million from school district funding envelopes at the very outset of the pandemic. Nothing of the sort occurred in B.C. We wanted to give that guarantee and that stability to the school system.

In terms of the member's question around vulnerable students who may not be in a position, or whose family deems it's not a good, safe idea for them, to return to school in September, for example — I'd imagine that could include immunocompromised kids, or a family situation where that's an issue — there will be accommodations made, as there have been already.

We've heard pretty clearly the commitment from school districts that if there's a child with an individual education plan that calls for certain resources and strategies for them to be successful learners, those need to be adapted if they're not physically coming into school for in-class instruction. I know that's easier said that done, but there are ways to do it, as we've learned. It can be remote learning. It can be formal online learning programs. It can involve, maybe, teachers the child hasn't worked with who are non-enrolling teachers, or who do regularly work with or are involved in supporting a child remotely, not just the classroom teacher.

I would note that one of the positive takeaways from June was that kids with complex learning needs who were specifically invited to come back, not on a part-time but on a full-time basis, for the month of June and prior — along with the children of designated essential workers — did in fact return to the school system at a much higher rate than kids who don't fall under one of those categories. That's positive. We made that outreach. We directed school districts to survey those families specifically, and they did return in greater numbers.

We talk about pandemic discoveries that have to be digested and that can lead to innovations or change of practice. We did find that some parents of kids with complex needs or very specific mental health conditions actually thrived working and studying from home. That's been confirmed by the Ministry of Children and Family Development and the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions. That's interesting. That did occur during the pandemic reduction in in-class instruction. That might be a preference for some of those families going forward as we begin a new school year.

S. Furstenau: That actually segues right into a very specific question I have, raised by some constituents of mine, with a situation that connects to what the minister was just talking about.

These constituents are both qualified teachers, certified teachers, and also parents of a profoundly disabled child. That child had been getting at-home instruction through a contracted service. When the isolation orders came in, all of the contracted services were stopped, as well as additional supports through MCFD and before- and after-school-hours care.

These parents reached out to the ministry to request, since they were in fact meeting all of the needs of the child under his IEP, that they be contracted and in some way compensated for being the instructors and meeting his IEP. There's an understandable clause about not contracting parents to teach their own children. However, as we know, in bricks-and-mortar schools, it's not unusual that a child may well find themselves inside a parent's classroom. That does happen.

I'm just wondering. Given the circumstances of this pandemic and the uncertainty that may lie ahead, would the minister be considering revisiting some of those policies in consideration of some of these, I would expect, rare but not completely impossible situations that parents might be facing — where they become not only the primary caregivers but the primary instructors of their children, to ensure that they're meeting their IEPs?

Hon. R. Fleming: Thank you to the member for the question. Obviously, a lot of parents learned a great deal about their kids through the pandemic and played a much bigger role, I think, in most cases, than they normally would in supplementing the efforts of their teachers, engaging them and keeping them focused on learning.

We tried to make that effort easier by putting a number of resources together. The Keep Learning B.C. website was just one that was very successful — hundreds of thousands of visits there, with a pretty wide variety of good suggested content and learning resources that are available and internationally recognized for excellence. We will continue to update that.

Specifically to…. I should say that we also funded Shelley Moore. I know that the member is familiar with her excellent, humorous and effective communication skills. We contracted with her to put together videos — I think a couple per week — on how to recognize your child's learning style and help them be successful during the lockdown remote learning period and keep them interested in learning and how to be of assistance to make their learning experience more [audio interrupted] really, really well received and widely circulated. That was a good, little mid-pandemic partnership that we might revisit.

I would direct the member to maybe formulate some questions for the Minister of Children and Family Development during her estimates. She rolled out a program during the pandemic to support families, an emergency relief support fund, $225 per month, to families that incurred additional costs related to helping their kids be successful. I know that the number of ordinarily eligible families for this type of funding increased by about 50 percent. My understanding is that that program was widely subscribed and has been extended until September at this time.

I don't have too many further details, but she may wish to talk to my colleague the Minister of Children and Family Development.

The other thing — last point — would be that on an ongoing basis and in considerable earnest right now, school districts are developing at-home learning plans continuously and looking at, again, lessons learned from May to June, working on a peer-to-peer basis with other school districts to make sure that they're all looking at a better remote learning experience based on the feedback they got during the early stages of the pandemic.

S. Furstenau: I think we'll follow up through my constituency office, which I believe is already on this particular file, but the specific question is about parents being able to be contracted if they are certified teachers for providing educational instruction for their children at home when others had been contracted to do that but couldn't during the isolation part of the pandemic. But I'll follow that up directly through our constituency office.

The last little set of questions here.

A lot of my constituents, and I know constituents around the province, were reaching out to their MLAs about the changes in funding to the independent distributed learning schools. In question period the other day, the minister spoke about the specific supports for more vulnerable students and children with special learning needs, and it would be really helpful if he could elaborate on that.

That's one of the biggest concerns that I've heard from parents. Parents of children with special needs feel very distressed about losing access to programs that have been very successful for their children when other programs or schools have not served the needs of their children.

Then just a question about…. In approaching that decision, was the Federation of Independent Schools consulted? Were they aware of the changes that were coming before they were announced? If not, why not?

So those two questions on the changes to the independent distributed learning schools. Thank you.