Sixty new teachers, smaller classes, new faces: a bit of back to the future will greet returning students and their parents in Cowichan Valley schools this fall.
According to Rod Allen, superintendent of schools for School District #79, it’s been a busy summer adapting to the changes ordered by Bill 28, but everything is ready for Tuesday, Sept. 5, when the school year commences.
After the provincial government this year lost its court case with the BC Teachers’ Federation, it was forced to re-instate class size language that had been stripped from teachers’ contracts in the early 1990s. Bill 28 was brought down and passed to attempt to deal with these old problems in a new world.
Every district is dealing with Bill 28, Allen said last week.
“What’s going down in Cowichan is essentially what’s happening in 59 other districts around the province. What’s interesting about that is that while each of the 60 districts is doing the same thing, back in those days we had 60 separate collective agreements. So, now it will look different in every district because that language has been restored to the collective agreements. Where there was a direction in the past few years of getting closer to provincial agreement, we’ve now gone back to 60 different collective agreements, especially around this language,” he said.
Parents may come to wonder why there are differences in class sizes among districts but it all comes down to “another puzzle for the government to figure out” because the changes have to be funded “60 different ways, not one way,” he said, adding that teachers’ salaries are not part of this at all, he said.
Already, Allen said, both the BCTF and districts have been asking: “Is there enough money to fund this properly?” and “Is there enough flexibility within the funding that is available to meet the 60 different sets of needs?”
What this had meant for the Cowichan Valley district is 60 more full-time teaching positions.
“It’s not insignificant,” he said.
In the Valley, the district has been scrambling to make more classroom space ready.
“We have gone in a year from quite a lot of available space to very little available space. We still have some but we’re watching that very carefully. We have not opened up any closed schools. We are fortunate here that we had enough portables and modulars on our property that we could re-purpose. We didn’t have to go out and purchase any of those.”
Asked if portable classrooms were probably in short supply all over the province, Allen smiled ruefully.
“They are in zero supply. There are none. Because this is happening everywhere. You can imagine the scale of the situation in Surrey or Vancouver.”
It has meant a busy summer for district employees, getting the new classroom spaces ready.
“You don’t just drop a portable onto a new spot. Most of them hadn’t been used as classrooms recently. So you have to refurbish the insides, refurbish the outsides, prepare the foundations, hook up water. And any portable that’s going to have primary or elementary kids in it, you put washrooms in if they don’t have them. It meant huge amounts of work. They were busy the whole summer long.”
The district also encountered a few surprises along the way, Allen said.
“Wildfires in the Interior affected the moving company that we had contracted with to move the portables because they got hauled off to what we would all consider higher priority work. And some of their crews got stuck on the other side of the fires. Who would have predicted that we’d have that going on? But we’re in place. We’ll be ready for September.”
An interesting byproduct of all the new classes opening up is that because there are so many positions to choose from, staff this year have had more ability to move between assignments or between schools, according to Allen.
“Or maybe they’ve wanted to for a while but there haven’t been openings in some of those schools. Now we have far more teachers in assignments that they have selected. Which is awesome. Even for people who’ve stayed where they are, it’s now a conscious choice to stay.”
That will help soften the effects of some big changes this year, he said.
“It wasn’t the intent of the whole process but we saw a lot of teachers transferring. It’s exciting. It’s energizing.”
As students and parents move into September, the first thing they will notice is smaller class sizes, with some new faces around school.
“You don’t add in 60 new positions without some significant reductions in class sizes,” he said. “But we haven’t moved whole grades out of one building into another or anything like that. In meeting with the principals the past two days, there’s a real sense of optimism. There’s going to be lots of questions and things to work through in the next couple of months. But in terms the user experience for parents and kids: it feels good,” Allen said.