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Baldrey: B.C. got it right when it came to keeping schools open

A empty hallway is pictured at Eric Hamber Secondary school in Vancouver, B.C. Monday, March 23, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

B.C. has done many things differently than other provinces when it comes to dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and one of the key differences is that this province has kept its K-12 school system open with in-person learning the entire school year.

It has been a controversial decision from time to time. The B.C. Teachers’ Federation has challenged almost every aspect of the reopening plans and social media sites like Twitter are home to critics who savagely attack keeping the schools open, with misinformed claims that somehow classrooms are giant Petri dishes spreading the virus like wildfire.

Click to play video: 'B.C. teachers are critical of the province’s vaccine rollout for kids 12-17' B.C. teachers are critical of the province’s vaccine rollout for kids 12-17
B.C. teachers are critical of the province’s vaccine rollout for kids 12-17 – May 21, 2021

While all provinces began the school year with in-person learning, some – notably Ontario, Manitoba and Alberta – have switched to online learning for long stretches of the year. The result has been a confusing, unpredictable mess of a school year in many places outside of B.C.

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Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has insisted since B.C. schools reopened last spring that there is low transmission in schools and that protecting the mental health of young people was worth what was (and remains) a relatively small risk of getting the virus from inside a school.

Read more: Ontario schools to remain closed to in-person learning until September

Indeed, a recent report by Ontario’s Science Advisory Panel concluded school closures have a widespread and significant negative impact on students’ mental and physical health as well as their academic achievement

To its credit, the B.C. NDP government has let Henry and public health officials make the determination of risks and benefits that flow from having schools open (just as it gives public health the lead hand on pretty much all COVID-19 decisions).

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B.C. families keeping kids home from school over COVID-19 concerns – Apr 6, 2021

As I have noted in this space before, Premier John Horgan told me when the pandemic began he would not be the lead public face of the province’s COVID-19 response and that he would leave things pretty much up to Henry, Health Minister Adrian Dix and other cabinet ministers.

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That stands in stark contrast to some other premiers, notably Ontario’s Doug Ford and Alberta’s Jason Kenney. Ford, in particular, has presided over clumsy, inconsistent and political approaches that sometimes close schools and sometimes do not (Ontario has now closed all schools until the next school year).

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Study aims to better understand COVID-19 transmission in schools – Mar 5, 2021

Just as B.C. took a softer approach when it came to in-person dining (for much of the year, this province was the only one west of New Brunswick where you could sit down at an indoor table at a restaurant and enjoy a meal with others) we have taken a softer approach when it came to schools.

B.C. parents no doubt overwhelmingly support the continued reopening while parents in Ontario are no doubt feeling quite the opposite right now.

Read more: As vaccinations ramp up in B.C., who remains at greatest risk of COVID-19?

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Some things have been hit and miss in this pandemic. Officials in all provinces were slow to act to curb the threat of COVID-19 in long-term care homes, for example, and the border with the U.S. stayed open too long.

But B.C. got it right when it came to keeping our schools open and, as the end of the school year approaches, it is worth noting cases associated with school-aged children have remained consistently low since the pandemic began: fewer than 25,000 cases (four per cent of the school population) and fewer than 130 hospitalized (.02 per cent).

B.C. schools are safe and they are open. Both of those accomplishments rank as two of the province’s biggest and most important victories in this pandemic.

Keith Baldrey is the chief political reporter for Global BC

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