B.C. Education Minister Rachna Singh said it will be up to schools to ban cellphones in classrooms and defended the dropping of letter grades for Grades 9 and below as close to 600,000 public school students returned to school across the province.
Singh made these comments, Tuesday (Sept. 5) at Delta’s Delview Secondary school, where she was promoting road safety and the return of school zones as B.C.’s public education system faces a host of immediate and long-term issues.
Some schools remain closed because of evacuation orders or alerts. Some students are returning to school from locations other than their homes. Many are returning to schools crunched for space and eager for staff in the face of growing enrollment and labour shortages. And looming are the yet-to-be-known effects of artificial intelligence on the way students learn and teachers instruct.
Singh touched on many of those issues during the question-and-answer period. She weighed in on Quebec’s recent decision to ban cell devices in most teaching environments because of their distracting effects — a directive that won’t apply to private schools and allows teachers to use cell phones for teaching purposes only.
She suggested B.C. won’t follow Quebec’s example.
“I would say that the decision needs to be made by the teachers in the classrooms, what the needs of the students are, how they can learn in a better way,” she said. “So I would definitely leave it to the teachers and the individuals to make that decision.”
Singh also signalled that the province won’t reconsider its decision to drop letter grades.
“This is something we think is really good for the students’ (learning) outcome,” she said. “It will give them more descriptive feedback from the teachers, but also give the students the tools to do the self-assessment. I also want to make sure to let parents know that for Grades 10, 11 and 12…that letter grades remain.”
She acknowledged it may take parents some time to accept the change, but added that they will have opportunities to talk to their children’s teachers, with the ministry offering support for all involved.
With enrollment on the rise — projections call for almost 624,000 students by 2031/32 — many schools are struggling to find space, putting pressure on governments to build more schools. The City of Surrey, for example, told a government committee that rising enrollment would require the construction of two elementary schools every year. The issue of space came up several times last spring in the provincial legislature when BC United accused the NDP of failing to fulfill its promise of ending the use of portables in that community.
Singh, who represents a Surrey riding, said government is working closely with the Surrey School District as well as other districts in fast-growing communities to expand existing schools and build new ones quicker. They include securing land before development happens.
She also said her government is looking at different strategies to expand the pool of available teachers against the backdrop of districts turning to uncertified teachers. She pointed to the creation of 250 teacher training seats at universities as well as $12.5 million to boost the recruitment and retention of teachers in rural and northern districts.
Singh added that government is also looking at ways of recognizing foreign credentials.
“We want to make sure that the kids get the quality education that they deserve, that the teachers have the training, so we don’t want to compromise on the training part of it,” she said. “But at the same time, we want to reduce the barriers that we know many people face, when they move to a new country.”
Singh, however, could not directly answer questions about whether B.C. faces a shortage of teachers.
”The school districts are the employers,” she said. “They know. They are the ones making decisions about the staffing and the resources in a school district and in a particular school.”
At the same time, the situation is fluid, she said.
Singh also touched on the effects of the wildfires on public education. While fires did not destroy any schools, some have not yet resumed full operations.
The wildfires that hit West Kelowna and the Shuswap region of British Columbia mere days before the start of school have also up-ended personal and professional lives for students and others in the school system.
“As we start a new school year, I recognize that some students, teachers and staff may not be in their homes and communities due to the devastating wildfires happening throughout our province,” she said in a statement. “Ministry staff are working with the school districts in these areas to support students and staff, and we will continue to do so for as long as help is needed.”
-with files from Sobia Moman