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Five weeks after the B.C. government suspended classroom instruction across the K-12 education system, the province’s public schools have developed a system to deliver 75,000 meals a week to 16,000 families.

A replacement for classroom instruction, however, is still being rolled out.

“When it comes to a system of remote, online learning that we’ve had to create out of nothing, we have encountered some digital deficits,” Education Minister Rob Fleming said.

The new system that is being built in response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been delayed because some students cannot access online learning. School boards have focused first on gathering laptops and other devices to loan out to students, and setting up WiFi hotspots in under-serviced rural communities.

The closing of schools has also highlighted the wide range of services – other than teaching – that the public education system is expected to provide.

Schools are currently providing child care for 2,300 school-age children of essential service workers – a number that is expected to rise this week as schools broaden their services to include additional categories of essential workers. The in-school meal programs that used to ensure students didn’t go hungry are now expanding to provide for families in the community who are being pushed to the financial brink as pandemic-fuelled unemployment climbs. Counsellors are trying to track students in need, without being able to locate them in the bricks-and-mortar setting. Locating students, in some cases, has been difficult because of lack of telephone or internet at home, or students having moved houses temporarily.

The minimum expectation is that by now, all students in B.C.’s school system should have heard from their teacher or teachers, and will have started learning remotely.

But the expectations around meeting the curriculum are vague.

“What we’re trying to do, and what teachers are working on, is completing some of the curriculum’s core competencies that are part of whatever grade level of instruction they normally teach, but they’re going to have to do it differently,” Mr. Fleming said. “There is no substitute for in-class instruction, there’s no question about that.”

He urged parents not to stress about the number of hours of instruction.

“We’re trying to encourage parents to not be so hard on themselves,” he said. “This is a global pandemic; everybody’s in the same boat here. And I think the main thing is to get through this together and not be too stressed about the number of hours that you’re not getting, that you would have been getting.”

Opposition Leader Andrew Wilkinson said some of the province’s school districts are doing well in delivering education. “They are doing good work in Kamloops, not so good in Vancouver." That uneven delivery of education is unacceptable, the Liberal Leader said, and he blamed Mr. Fleming for not issuing clear objectives.

“The ministry should be setting standards, instead they have handed it off to 60 school districts.”

But Stephanie Higginson, president of the BC School Trustees Association, which represents the employer in B.C. public schools, said the education system is working carefully so that it doesn’t increase inequality. ​

"This whole experience has shone a light on the important roles that public schools play in supporting a functioning society, beyond just the delivery of curriculum,” she said. “I keep struggling a little bit when I hear people say, you just flick a switch and go online ... We have kids whose only meal they get is when they come to school. So we’ve got to make sure that some of those most basic needs are met before we can start asking kids to work on their math.”

Mr. Fleming said planning is under way to reopen schools to classroom instruction, but he stressed that there is no date yet.

“We’re at the point where we are having conversations and planning exercises with the provincial health officer, and other education stakeholders, but I want to stress, these are planning contingencies,” he said.

“The decision around a broader reopening of schools is one that it’s wise to contemplate and imagine what it might look like. But it’s not prudent to give artificial dates or false hopes. The science will inform that, if and when it’s possible.”

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