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There’s the possibility B.C. students may be returning to classrooms, but it will be a slow process and school won’t look anything like it did in the past, according to the B.C. government.

And that plan suits some parents in rural, remote island communities just fine, as their kids thrive outdoors in an unstructured learning environment.

Some COVID-19 restrictions could be eased as soon as May, if new cases and hospitalization rates continue to decline, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said on Friday morning.

However, any return to classrooms will be partial and gradual to reflect the “new normal” in which there is continued need to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, Henry said.

The provincial health officer didn’t commit to a timeline for when schools might open, much less to all of B.C’s 634,000 students.

But children of health-care workers need to get back to classrooms to allow their parents increased participation in the health sector, Henry said.

For students across the province, returning to school will look different than it did previous to the pandemic.

“It may mean smaller classes, only some children going to school at certain times. None of the mingling that we used to have with kids getting together," Henry said.

"As well as some hybrid, perhaps, of some children doing remote learning while others are in a classroom situation, and able to maintain those safe distances.”

While the future of classroom instruction is still uncertain, some rural parents are finding the changes in education to be enriching and liberating for their kids and families.

Cortes Island, B.C., resident Odette Auger, a mother of three with two school-aged children, said despite some attendant difficulties, the class suspension is actually enriching her kids’ education.

“If you wait for that teachable moment, you have their full attention, and we’re having amazing conversations,” Odette Auger, Cortes Island mom on the benefits of nature and self-directed learning while school classes are suspended due to COVID-19.

Learning for her children, Harvest and Sophia, in Grades 1 and 9, has become more spontaneous and interest driven, she said.

“If you wait for that teachable moment, you have their full attention, and we’re having amazing conversations,” Auger said.

The kids no longer disappear out the door from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. each school day, and it’s improved their quality of life and family interaction, she said.

The family had a conversation about endangered First Nations languages around the lunch table the other day, with Harvest, 7, fully participating in the discussion, she said.

“It’s really brought the focus back to our family and our home,” Auger said.

Like many parents on Cortes — a rural, remote island with a population of approximately 1,000 residents, located on the east coast of Vancouver Island — Auger has some experience with homeschooling.

“We have always flirted with both school and home learning and each has its benefits,” she said. “I’ve always loved home learning, and a lot of Cortes parents embrace that option."

Auger makes good use of her natural environment and her large vegetable garden to teach and engage her kids.

She armed her son with a nature log and sent him outside to watch birds.

“I was so proud. He sat and drew a robin and observed what they were eating,” she said.

“We discussed how he wants to think about that work, as science or art, and he came up with the concept of nature detective. So, he’s out in the garden nature detecting.”

Harvest, in Grade 1, spends time as a "nature detective", painting what he sees in the garden and logging the behaviour of birds while his reguar school classes are suspended due to COVID-`19. Photo; Odette Auger.

She supplements her son’s outdoor time with math activities and a new focus on spelling, but not in a regimented way, and subject to his energy and attention for the subject.

“As soon as he’s losing focus, that’s when we start something else,” she said.

Auger’s 14-year-old daughter, Sophia, is isolated physically from her peers but takes part in a variety of online group activities with organizations involved with youth in connection to First Nations, environmental and gender equity issues.

Despite the benefits of unstructured learning, there are still some challenges associated with a lack of classes, Auger said.

Auger works from home and studies online for a combined average of 60 hours a week, and she now has to balance her internet access with her kids' learning. She often gets up at dawn to get her most important work done.

“There’s been juggling for sure … so we have to prioritize.”

The children's teachers have connected with the family, and a literacy package and links to online learning and literacy sites were provided to Harvest, Auger said.

Sophia’s teacher is providing some weekly assignments, running a blog and providing opportunities for learning assistance online or over the phone.

But structured online learning with specific goals at a provincial or district level is not being organized while classes are suspended.

The B.C. Ministry of Education has stated that each school district and independent school authority should implement plans that respond to the individual needs of each community, classroom or student, and that there is no expectation that the pace or rigour of a typical school day will be duplicated at home.

Teachers are expected to provide continuity of learning that is reasonable and accounts for the unique circumstances and abilities of individual students in a home-learning environment.

This might include online learning tools and/or resource packages or assignments emailed or delivered from teachers to parents, according to the ministry, which also launched a website for parents and students with resources to support learning at home.

The B.C. approach varies from other provinces, such as Alberta, which has outlined specific goals for districts and teachers who are expected to assign a specific number of hours of work per student each week, whether online, over the phone or through paper educational materials.

Albertan kindergarten to Grade 6 students will get five hours of work each week from teachers, while Grades 7 to 9 will get 10 hours, and Grades 10 to 12 will get approximately 18 hours of work.

For B.C.'s Campbell River School District (SD72), Superintendent Jeremy Morrow said one priority was to help students and their families weather the COVID-19 crisis.

“We really didn’t want to create more complexity and anxiety for parents,” Morrow said Friday.

“Additionally we want to create more stability, but we also want to provide robust learning opportunities and to allow teachers and families to communicate about what that might look like.”

Teachers' responses to student needs will vary according to the household, he said.

“We’re talking about learning opportunities, not replicating what was going on in classes before they were suspended,” Morrow said.

“Some families are in crisis. They may have lost work or lack internet connection. There is a wide range of circumstances.”

Parents, overall, have been patient and supportive of SD72’s efforts, he said.

“For the most part we’ve had really positive feedback from parents. Most are aware of the difficulties of the situation,” Morrow said.

Sarah Johnston, a Quadra Island, B.C., mother of three school-aged kids says she’s outright enjoying classes being suspended.

“I think it’s amazing. If I could, I’d keep it this way forever,” Johnston said.

“Self-isolation has actually calmed everyone down because there are no expectations about going here or there, or having to behave a certain way.”

Interest-driven learning has particularly benefitted her child in Grade 4 who struggles with anxiety, oppositional behavior and establishing relationships in school.

“He’s doing great right now. He was doing well at school, but he’s not a fan of larger class activities,” Johnston said.

Her son is thriving with the decrease in structured expectations and the fact he’s able to maintain his relationship with his educational assistant during home learning, she said.

Some parents in her Facebook support group for parents of children with learning challenges are feeling the same way, Johnston said.

But for others, it appears things have gotten even more difficult.

“There seems to be a dichotomy of people, some parents are struggling without the normal supports, and others are finding their kids are a lot calmer,” she said.

Johnston’s eldest daughter, who is in Grade 5 in the French Immersion Program, which is separate from SD72, is getting very structured learning on an iPad that was sent home with her prior to spring break.

The teacher meets the kids on Zoom each morning to outline activities and assign homework, and maintains virtual office hours to help students complete assignments.

Quadra Island student Ivy Johnston continues her French immersion learning online in the comfort of her bed with educational oversight from her cat during the suspension of regular classes due to COVID-19. Photo: Sarah Johnston.

The assignments and connections with teachers from SD72 are less regular.

But Johnston, who also has homeschooled her kids in the past, isn’t concerned, noting there are lots of online resources.

“I’m not worrying about it at all,” Johnston said, adding she’s come to a learning agreement with her kids.

“We school for two hours … and do some math, reading and audio books and whatever else we feel like,” she said.

“I want to find something they are excited about, so they’ll learn how to do it.”

Like Auger, Johnston is taking advantage of the benefits of rural living and plans to incorporate food production and the garden into their learning.

Her conversations with her children are also more advanced than they would be in school, she said.

Johnston and her children had a long conversation about genetics and species classification after the kids wanted to learn about ligers — a hybrid offspring of a male lion and a female tiger.

"We even discussed embryonic development and that’s a conversation with a seven, nine and 10-year-old," Johnston said.

But Johnston wonders how parents who are working, don’t have access to computers or the internet, or who aren't comfortable homeschooling their kids are going to adapt.

“It will be interesting how the government manages that,” she said.

Auger agreed there are some advantages educationally to having access to green spaces, and worried about families without those same benefits.

“There are kids in basement suites ... and their family may be facing bigger struggles with addiction or just moving into survival mode, whether that’s here or in the city,” she said.

“But I get the feeling that’s one reason why our teachers really want to hear the kids' voices over the phone right now.”

Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative

Thank you for this article and it's interesting to see how some families are responding to having their kids at home. Most of these families are lucky because they can easily access nature (whether it be a garden, forest etc.). I'm concerned that many children, especially in cities, aren't able to get outside in nature right now. And they need to get outside. There's a large body of research that shows that kids are healthier, happier and even smarter if they get outside and play. Richard Louv's book, The Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from the Nature-Deficit Disorder is a good place to start. Also, here in BC, HCTF Education (formerly called Wild BC) has a lot of good resources for teachers and parents: https://www.hctfeducation.ca.

I agree with Patricia.

Thanks for your insights Patricia. Hopefully other readers will follow up on your suggestions. I come from the generation that was kicked out the door after breakfast and wasn't allowed back until dinner. I spent a lot of time examining the creatures and animals in the trees, creeks, ponds and ditches around my house. I'd wish the same for all kids.