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Teacher Manjeet Brar speaks to her Grade 5 students during class at Newton Elementary School in Surrey, B.C., on June 22, 2012. (DARRYL DYCK For The Globe and Mail)
Teacher Manjeet Brar speaks to her Grade 5 students during class at Newton Elementary School in Surrey, B.C., on June 22, 2012. (DARRYL DYCK For The Globe and Mail)

Happy teachers and fewer students in B.C. schools this year Add to ...

When B.C. students head back to school this week, they’ll face new classes, teachers and schedules.

They could also encounter the lingering effects of last year’s labour dispute as well as potentially renewed conflict as a fresh round of bargaining begins.

A primer on what to expect:

At school

Last year, schools opened to a “teach only” campaign in which teachers stopped doing some non-classroom tasks, including filling out report cards and collecting money from students for things such as lockers and school photos. This year, teachers are not engaged in a job action, so non-classroom activities such as parent-teacher interviews and staff meetings are expected to be back in the regular routine.

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As part of stepped-up job action last year, the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation endorsed a province-wide withdrawal by teachers from extracurricular activities such as coaching sports teams. That campaign is no longer in effect. But teachers’ participation in such activities is voluntary, as was confirmed by a B.C. Labour Relations Board ruling last year.

At the negotiating table

Teachers ratified a new contract last June. The two-year agreement expires on June 30, 2013, so the BCTF and the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association, the bargaining agent for B.C.’s 60 school boards, are likely to be back in talks by the spring. The same issues that dominated last year – teachers’ wages, classroom size and composition – are expected to be front and centre. The BCTF has also filed a court challenge to Bill 22, education legislation that came into effect last year. The union claims the legislation does not do enough to address a 2011 court ruling that found parts of previous legislation to be unconstitutional.

It gave the government until April, 2012, to fix it. That case is expected to be heard in B.C. Supreme Court in December.

In charge

BCTF president Susan Lambert was re-elected for a third one-year term at the union’s annual general meeting in March. Education Minister and Liberal MLA George Abbott recently announced he would not seek re-election next year. Premier Christy Clark has said she would revamp her cabinet, and a new education minister is expected to be part of the overhaul.

In the classroom

An estimated 535,000 students will enroll in B.C. public schools this fall, down about 6,000 from last year. Since the beginning of the decade, enrolment has dropped by about 63,000 students. On a recent back-to-school conference call, Mr. Abbott floated the possibility of combining some school districts. In the Lower Mainland’s fast-growing Surrey, meanwhile, overcrowding is an issue. The province has announced plans for two new elementary schools and additions to two secondary schools to help ease the crunch, with spending forecasts of $44-million for the projects.

Seismic upgrades begun in 2001 continue. The latest round, announced in May, included $122-million to upgrade 14 schools in locations including Vancouver, the Comox Valley and Victoria.

In the lunch box

As parents are shopping for school pens and notebooks, many are also getting lunch supplies, including sugary drinks.

That’s a worry for Tom Warshawski, a Kelowna pediatrician and chair of the Childhood Obesity Foundation. He would like to see a tax on such beverages, saying they contribute to a growing incidence of obesity and put a burden on the health-care system – claims the beverage industry disputes.

Dr. Warshawski envisions a health-promotion tax that would apply to beverages that contain sugar, including soft drinks and fruit-flavoured beverages, but not to fruit juices without added sugar.

Other jurisdictions, including Denmark and France, have introduced drink taxes. In New York, a proposed regulation would cap drink sizes. In Canada, the notion of a tax on sugary beverages is backed by several groups but has yet to win government support.

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