Good morning! Wendy Cox here at home in Vancouver.
News Tuesday that B.C. had finally declared schools would not reopen at the end of this month after March break concludes was greeted initially by my three kids with some joy. British Columbia was the last province to declare schools must shutter.
But then my family – and many others – were left with the question: What does this mean?
British Columbia’s schools have been closed indefinitely. B.C. Education Minister Rob Fleming gave no indication of when classes might resume, instead saying that work is still under way to determine how education will be delivered in the coming weeks. He said Grade 12 students will still graduate, and all students who are on track to move to the next grade in the fall will do so.
Ontario’s school closing is only supposed to go on for two weeks after March break. In Manitoba, classes are out until April 6.
Like British Columbia’s closing, Alberta’s is indefinite, but Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Deena Hinshaw, gave a hint Sunday on what that could look like. On that day, before the decision was made to definitively shutter classrooms, she said school closings would need to last until September to be effective.
“If we do make the decision to close schools, it will be considering long-term closure. This pandemic will not end in a matter of weeks and there won't be a clear opportunity to reopen schools, likely not until September at the earliest,” Dr. Hinshaw said.
How education gets delivered in the meantime and what teachers are expected to do to facilitate it has also varied by province.
Staff have been ordered home in Ontario schools, though the province’s Education Minister has said his government is determining how to deliver instruction. In Manitoba, teachers will be asked to remain on the job to prepare lessons for their students to complete at home. In Alberta, teachers and school staff will be expected to work, either from home or from the workplace to ensure students are meeting expectations, but how that will work is under discussion.
In British Columbia, schools that provide social services such as meal programs to vulnerable students, and day-care services, will be able to maintain those programs. Teachers will continue to work, but how they will teach remains up in the air.
Generally, reporters don’t like it much when politicians don’t have answers to such basic questions as how will students get the teaching they need. But at a time of unprecedented uncertainty, with a pandemic that is sweeping across the country at a rate so fast, cautious guidance from a few weeks ago now looks reckless in retrospect, there is some grim acceptance when authorities acknowledge that it’s difficult to predict where we will be with this crisis by this time next month.
The uncertainty and the mounting numbers of cases, as well as a death toll that has risen from one last week to seven on Tuesday has forced provinces to prepare for the worst. On Tuesday, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia declared states of emergency, a declaration that gives them sweeping powers to deal with the crisis.
Albertans are now prohibited from recreation centres, casinos, nightclubs, and children’s play centres, and many other public facilities. Essential services, such as grocery stores, airports and health-care facilities, will remain open.
The City of Calgary, which declared a state of emergency on Sunday, issued an order on Tuesday that all travellers returning from international destinations should isolate themselves for two weeks. The order applies to any international traveller, regardless of their method of travel, for whom Calgary is their final destination.
In B.C., provincial health officer Bonnie Henry announced the province’s state of emergency Tuesday along with an order to close all bars and clubs due to their inability to meet social-distancing criteria. Restaurants and cafes that can meet the criteria are permitted to stay open, but Dr. Henry recommended they move to takeout or delivery only. Already, on Monday, B.C. had banned gatherings with more than 50 people.
Globe health columnist André Picard writes today that the variety in the responses from province to province is unacceptable. If schools must close, all of them everywhere across the country must be shuttered. If there is an emergency in Calgary, surely, too, there is an emergency in Regina.
The rebellious joy my kids initially felt at B.C. school closings didn’t last through lunch time. They know, as do policy makers, that we’re all in for a long period of uncertainty and a complete upheaval to all areas of life.
But at least I was home to join them for lunch.
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Around the West:
CORONAVIRUS AND THE ARTS: The virus’s spread has also led to widespread shutdowns in B.C.’s movie and television industry. The province’s culture ministry issued a statement Friday saying it’s too early to determine the impact of COVID-19 on the economy: “We are asking film and TV producers to make timely decisions around the health and welfare of their employees. To support workers, we welcome the initial measures from the federal government including the elimination of the one-week waiting period for EI sickness benefits.”
CORONAVIRUS AND HOMELESSNESS: Poverty advocates, housing providers and politicians across Canada are scrambling to figure out what to do to protect vulnerable people who are homeless, in shelters or in certain high-risk social-housing buildings during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Vancouver, shelters and housing providers are sprinting to introduce new cleaning measures and make contingency plans, but there is no public announcement yet about any provisions for isolating homeless people who get infected.
CORONAVIRUS AND THE FLAMES STAFF: The Calgary Flames have decided to assist their part-time event staff who will be underemployed during the suspension of the NHL season. President and CEO of Calgary Sports and Entertainment, John Bean, says in a statement that the organization will now be “adopting an income bridge-support program for qualifying employees.”
CORONAVIRUS AND B.C. FERRIES: BC Ferries, one of the world’s largest passenger ferry services, will be allowing people to stay in their vehicles during trips, acting on a concern that passengers would not be able to self-isolate while on board. On Monday, Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s provincial health officer, said Transport Canada had agreed to change the safety regulation that forces people out of vehicles parked on enclosed decks. (Latitude on the issue already exists for larger vessels.)
CORONAVIRUS AND B.C. HOSPITALS: Thousands of elective operations are being cancelled in British Columbia’s hospitals, and for the first time in decades, physicians in B.C. will not be limited in the number of patients they can see in a day, as the province seeks to free up more acute and primary care to address the COVID-19 crisis. B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix announced the new measures on Monday, saying the changes will free up hundreds of hospital beds and ensure doctors are better able to respond to the expected increase in the number of British Columbians requiring urgent medical care in the coming days.
ALBERTA’S CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER: On Monday, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health announced 18 new cases of COVID-19 in the province Monday but the news came via video, as she has isolated herself at home and is being tested for the virus. “Although my symptoms are mild, it is important to underline that no one is exempt from staying at home, even if they have mild symptoms,” said Dr. Deena Hinshaw. She said her symptoms – no cough or fever – do not suggest she has COVID-19, the disease that comes from the novel coronavirus. But she said she was asked to get tested anyway so she can get back to work in person as soon as possible if the results are negative.
SELF-ASSESSMENT TOOL: Alberta has launched an online self-assessment tool for people with questions about the coronavirus. The self-assessment tool went live just before 5 p.m. Friday. About 24 hours later, it had been used more than 400,000 times. By Tuesday, the number had hit one million. Most of the users are from Alberta, but other Canadians – and even a small number of people in the United States and further afield – have been using the simple series of online questions about symptoms to determine if they are infected and whether they should seek testing.
SASKATCHEWAN’S NEWLY FAMOUS RESIDENT: Elias Scharf, who’s from Craven, Sask., was visiting Disneyland with his mom, dad and 24-year-old sister when the theme park announced it was closing for one month due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Fox 11 Los Angeles caught up with Elias – wearing a blue poncho, an umbrella resting casually against his shoulder – just outside the park gates in Anaheim, Calif., last Thursday to ask for his reaction to news of the closing. “We come from Canada – took a long trip to get here,” Elias said calmly, taking a long sip from a Starbucks cup, signalling an end to the interview, which went viral.
CORONAVIRUS AND THE SASKATCHEWAN BUDGET: The Saskatchewan government says it’s not going to release its full budget on Wednesday because of economic uncertainty over COVID-19. It says it will outline the government’s spending plans for the coming year, but not any revenue forecasts.
CORONAVIRUS AND MANITOBA CLOSINGS: Seven new presumptive cases of COVID-19 have been identified on Tuesday in Manitoba, where the government is moving to close daycares and preschools. The majority of the cases involve people in Winnipeg: a woman in her 60s, two women in their 50s, a woman in her 40s and a man in his 30s.
Marsha Lederman on the impact of the pandemic on the B.C. arts community: “It’s not the first thing on anyone’s mind right now, but spare a thought, please, for artists and cultural organizations dealing with an indefinite nightmare, unprecedented in modern times. And maybe, if you can, spare your cancelled ticket too. On the West Coast, where I live and write about these organizations on a regular basis, there are inherent challenges for the arts – difficulties attracting funding, operating outside of Canada’s artistic epicentre, handling ridiculous Vancouver rents. But my God, what they are all going through now.”
Justine Hunter on the coronavirus’s impact on the B.C. budget: “The health crisis created by the rapid global spread of the virus wasn’t foreseen, at that point, as a major economic threat here in B.C. It is a reminder of how much the world has changed in less than a month. The provincial economy, greatly dependent on international trade and tourism, will not look anything like what was envisioned when, in her spending plan, Ms. James outlined promised growth, stability and opportunity for the coming year.”
Max Fawcett on the ongoing labour dispute between doctors and the province of Alberta: “But [the UCP government] seems intent on continuing the skirmish with Alberta’s doctors, and in the face of a global pandemic, this seems akin to an act of self-defeating stubbornness. At a time such as this, you would think governments would want their doctors, nurses and paramedics devoting all of their available energy and attention to the crisis at hand, not worrying about how they’re billing or whether they can afford to continue practising medicine in Alberta.”
This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here. This is a new project and we’ll be experimenting as we go, so let us know what you think.