British Columbia

Vancouver parents with health concerns say end of Option 4 remote learning presents 'callous' choice

A group of families at higher risk of COVID-19 complications want the Vancouver School Board to extend Option 4: a learning option they said keeps them safe from the risks of COVID in the classroom and preserves their kids' place in the schools and programs they know.

Option 4, set to end March 1, lets kids learn online but holds their place in pre-pandemic schools or programs

Left to right, Kyenta Martins with her husband Claude Martins and daughter Cate Martins and Zoe Martins. Cate and Zoe are in Grade 6 and Grade 4, respectively, at Tyee Elementary School in Vancouver. Due to concerns about Kyenta's chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, the children have been in the VSB's Option 4. (Liam Britten/CBC)

A group of families at higher risk of COVID-19 complications wants the Vancouver School Board to extend a learning option they say keeps them safe.

Option 4 allows for elementary students to learn online while holding their seat in their pre-pandemic school and programs like French immersion, so they can eventually rejoin their peers in person.

Option 4 is set to end March 1, leaving some families with a dilemma: send their kids back to in-class learning despite their safety misgivings or switch their kids to online learning where they have no guarantees their kids will return to their pre-pandemic schools or programs.

"Which, at this point in time, at their age, during a pandemic, is callous," said Kyenta Martins, who founded Option 4 Families of Vancouver.

Kyenta Martins says her advocacy group, Option 4 Families of Vancouver, has about 300 parents in its social media groups. (Christian Amundson/CBC)

Martins lives with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and worries her daughters might bring COVID into the family from school if they attend in person.

She doesn't want them to lose their place at Tyee Elementary, a Montessori with high demand. If her kids can't go back, she fears they will lose years of social connections forged with classmates and teachers.

If Option 4 is not extended, she said she plans to send her kids back, however, while she moves to Vancouver Island to live with her mother for the pandemic's duration.

"It would be heartbreaking," Martins said. "We can't think of any other way."

DPAC, teachers echo call

The chair of the Vancouver District Parent Advisory Council, Gord Lau, also wants to see Option 4 extended for the pandemic's duration.

He said it's not fair to ask parents to choose between pandemic safety and academic and social connections of their kids' familiar school.

"The pandemic has created a new group of vulnerable children ... based on the medical vulnerability of their families," Lau said. "It's the district's responsibility to provide an educational program that includes those students."

The Vancouver Elementary School Teachers' Association wants to see Option 4 extended and better supported with dedicated online teachers.

Vice-president Jody Polukoshko said teachers concerned about their own health could switch to online duties to support students in Option 4.

"Right now ... teachers are trying to do that work at the same time as they're teaching their in-class sessions. That's not providing an equity of access," she said.

Officials say transmission low, safety plans work

Health and education officials have stressed repeatedly that schools are seeing low COVID-19 transmission. There have been exposure incidents but very few outbreaks.

The Ministry of Education said in a statement it bases school guidelines on the best available science. It said it has looked at other jurisdictions for what works and what doesn't.

"There are strict health and safety measures in place designed to prevent transmission and the data shows in-school transmission has been uncommon," the statement read. "This is because safety plans work, both in schools and in other settings.

"We understand parents' concerns. Like all of us, they want to ensure the safety of their children and their families."

The VSB, in a statement, said Option 4 was intended to be a temporary transitional option for kids to eventually return to class in-person.

"As circumstances surrounding the pandemic evolve, the district continues to review the option," the VSB said.

The VSB said about 21 per cent of all elementary students were in Option 4 in September. Since then, 3,358 students have returned to in-person learning. In a January meeting, the board heard there were still 2,771 students in Option 4.

The school board is set to provide an update on Option 4 at a meeting Wednesday evening.

CBC Vancouver's Impact Team investigates and reports on stories that impact people in their local community and strives to hold individuals, institutions and organizations to account. If you have a story for us, email impact@cbc.ca.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Liam Britten

Digital journalist

Liam Britten is an award-winning journalist for CBC Vancouver. You can contact him at liam.britten@cbc.ca or follow him on Twitter: @liam_britten. Liam contributes to CBC Vancouver's Impact Team, where he investigates and reports on stories that impact people in their local community.

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