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The start of the new school year next Tuesday is bringing with it a couple of major changes.
The first is going to be very visible. While this is always a good time for a reminder to keep an eye out for kids on the road, this year it is especially important as, along with all the regular Grade 1 to 12 students, kindergarten students will be being escorted to and from school at unusual times.
That’s because the province has expanded the full-day kindergarten program introduced at about half of B.C. schools last year.
“We had about 22,000 kids in full-day kindergarten last year,” said Education Minister George Abbott. “This year we will have 37,000 full-day kindergarten students in B.C.”
Abbott said that everything they have heard with respect to full-day kindergarten has been positive, something Wendy Hyer, superintendent for the Okanagan Skaha School District, agrees with.
“We’re excited by full-day kindergarten; it’s a gift of time for kids,” said Hyer. Initial anxiety from concerned parents was quelled, she said, once parents saw how much the children enjoyed the full day of play-centred learning.
While full-day kindergarten is mandatory, Hyer said they have some flexibility for youngsters that have trouble adapting.
“We do have the ability to work with individual parents if a particular student is having difficulty with a full day, with the goal of getting them to the point where they can attend a full day. We don’t want them missing what other kids are doing,” she said, citing the environment of emotional, social, physical and oral language development.
“Kids benefit from that. We don’t want to have kids not participating, but we certainly have some flexibility.”
While government, the school districts and teacher representatives all agree they are looking forward to the start of the school year, the province and the B.C. Teachers Federation have yet to reach a new collective agreement to replace the one that expired in April.
That, said Kevin Epp, president of the Okanagan Skaha Teachers Union, means teachers will be implementing phase one of their job action plan, refusing to attend meetings or perform administrative duties.
While the job action will cause challenges for administrators, one of them will not be keeping track of students since teachers have agreed to continue doing one administrative job, that of taking attendance.
“That’s a safety thing. We want to know whether children are in schools, especially at the elementary levels,” said Hyer. “If they are not in school and we haven’t received a phone call from parents, we phone to make sure they aren’t missing in action.”
Epp said the purpose of the limited job action is to get the attention of administrators and government negotiators, not to disrupt the schools for parents and students. Teachers, he said, will be focusing on instructing the students.
“I don’t know that parents will notice the job action,” he said, adding that may change if the negotiations continue to drag on. “Parents may notice that they don’t receive report cards. However, teachers are always able to discuss with parents how their children are doing. It’s just that the administrative tasks of grinding together through the report card process may not happen if the job action goes on long enough.”
“We continue to hope they will reach a collective agreement, but I can tell you, there is not a lot of optimism about the chances for an early agreement, Abbott said.
“There is no question in my mind that the net zero mandate that has now been applied to about three-quarters of the public servants in B.C. will now be extended to teachers,” he said. “We don’t have the dollars to deal with a wage increase for the teachers or anyone else at this point.”
Though the job action prohibits teachers from doing administrative duties, Epp said it is up to individual teachers to decide if they want to continue doing extra-curricular activities like coaching sports teams or working on theatre or music projects. These things, he said, are unpaid volunteer work by the teachers.
“It’s not part of the job, it’s something that teachers do because they love the job and love the kids,” said Epp, though he added that if the negotiations drag on, further job action might include asking the teachers to drop those activities as well.