Province eyes longer school year to offset strike

Education Minister could make Grade 12 students 'whole' by adding days to calendar or carving into holidays

Education Minister Peter Fassbender says the province may take extraordinary steps to ensure senior secondary students’ school year is not cut short by the teachers strike.

That could mean adding days to the school calendar later in the year, he said, to ensure Grade 12 students in particular complete their courses and get all the marks they need.

“Do you put it on the end of the year? Do you take it out of Spring Break? Do you take it out of Christmas holidays? My staff are looking at all of the options,” Fassbender said.

“It’s going to depend on how long this drags out. Whatever length of time it takes to get this settled, we will do everything we can to make sure the school year is kept whole for those students.”

It’s unclear how the government would finance adding extra days of classes later when all of the $12 million per day in strike savings may be consumed by the province’s offer of $40-a-day payments to parents.

“If they were accumulating the savings, that would be one thing – they would have a fund,” Vancouver School Board chair Patti Bacchus said. “But they’re giving away the budget right now to parents that would be otherwise available to pay for that.”

As of Thursday, 63 per cent of parents of eligible public school children under 13 had signed up for the $40 payments, which are expected to be made as a lump sum after the strike ends.

Other costs that the province continues to incur while schools are closed include salaries for school administration as well as support staff with other unions that are eligible to be compensated for pay lost for not crossing teacher picket lines.

Support staff costs could hit $5 million a day once all their union locals ratify new contracts.

Education ministry officials said school districts would be consulted on any potential changes to the school year to mitigate the strike.

But Bacchus said she’s heard nothing so far and predicted it would be disruptive to families that have booked vacations and made other commitments far in advance.

“It’s not going to be easy,” she said, noting changes would also require exemptions from School Act requirements.

Talk of calendar adjustments is another sign of possible long-term implications from the strike, even though it has only disrupted the first few days of the new school year.

Parents have scrambled for limited space for child care, day camps, tutors and even private school placements for their children.

Stepping up to meet the demand have been independent schools and, increasingly, public school teachers no longer drawing a regular paycheque who are advertising “tutor” services online.

“I work for the Surrey School District and I am willing to tutor your child in the comfort of your own home,” reads one Craigslist post from an elementary school teacher.

Distance learning through independent online schools is another option.

The B.C. Online School run out of Kelowna by Heritage Christian Schools has been swamped with three times the normal number applications for distributed learning from students across the province as a result of the strike.

“We are overloaded with kids coming to us, particularly those in Grade 12 who want to get a particular course and get their requirements for university,” said superintendent Greg Bitgood.

The online school, which is half funded by the province, instructed 3,400 students in its summer school – three times the normal number – and turned away another 6,000.

Demand has surged again now that the strike has spilled into September and pushed back the scheduled start of classes.

Bitgood is weighing whether to hire more teachers in response.

But it’s risky because a deal or government legislation could send teachers back to work and students back to regular classes, said Bitgood,  who emphasized he also wants the public school shutdown to end quickly.

There’s only four such independent schools that offer distributed learning to students in the public system, Bitgood said, adding “there’s no way” the industry can meet the demand created by the strike.

Another independent online school based in Surrey declined to comment, saying the issue was “too sensitive.”

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