Parents and students protest the Yukon government’s COVID-19-induced changes to the 2020-2021 school year in front of the Department of Education building in Whitehorse on July 20. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Protest staged over school changes

More events to be held in opposition to 2020-2021 year plans

Waiving signs declaring ‘Half classed is half assed’ and ‘Stop the MADness McPhee’, about 30 protesters gathered in front of the Yukon government’s Department of Education building on Lewes Boulevard on July 20, decrying Whitehorse high school plans for the 2020-2021 school year.

Education Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee announced the plans earlier this month.

Students, parents, former teachers and others made clear their opposition to plans that will shift students and move Grades 10 to 12 in Whitehorse to half day schedules as officials work for schools to reopen while also providing for distancing in light of COVID-19. The July 20 protest was the first of a series planned to continue throughout the week.

“This is not OK,” Diane Chandler, one of the organizers, said in a short address to the crowd, going on to argue there was no consultation as there should have been over the changes.

“We are mad, we are pissed,” she said to cheers, encouraging the crowd to write to McPhee and Premier Sandy Silver with their concerns.

The plan will see kindergarten to Grade 9 students return to full-time classes. While students in Grades 10 to 12 in the communities will also be in class fulltime, in Whitehorse those students will go to class halftime, following a blended learning model that will also include other curriculum delivery methods such as online options. Grade 8 students at F.H. Collins Secondary School will be moved to the Wood Street Centre while the experiential programs offered there will move to F.H. Collins and Porter Creek Secondary Schools.

The plans have drawn the ire of many parents, alumni, students and others who argue it’s important for students to be in full-time classes in their final years of grade school and to have full access to services offered through the education system.

Supporters of the experiential learning programs have argued the space at the Wood Street Centre is more conducive to the experiential learning model with resources and infrastructure already in place (such as the theatre for the Music, Arts, Drama — MAD — program) to allow that to happen.

As Chandler’s daughter Autumn said in an interview, the space at the Wood Street Centre is important for the programs there.

A student of the MAD program, Autumn said the theatre inside the school is particularly important for her class.

“The space is organized chaos,” she said with a smile as she described the work each MAD class has put in over the years to make it a “proper stage.”

“There’s so much to it,” she said.

It was the MAD program, she said, that “completely changed my life.”

Before getting into MAD, Autumn said she had significant challenges in more conventional school programs dealing with anxiety.

On her first day in the MAD program, students were tasked with taking down some old curtains in the theatre. There, more than 20 students who didn’t really know one another climbed ladders, stood on scaffolding and worked together to take the curtains down.

Initially nervous that first day, as the students all “just got to work”, Autumn soon forgot exactly what she was worried about, she said.

Throughout the program, Autumn learned to express herself and found a place where she feels she belongs.

Like many, it was through social media she learned of the plan to move the MAD program to Porter Creek for the 2020/2021 school year. At first she thought it was some kind of joke.

“I was shocked,” she said of learning the move for this school year was indeed the plan.

Diane said it’s not just students and parents like Autumn and herself who were surprised to learn about the plans; she’s spoken with a number of teachers she said were “blindsided” by the changes announced.

As a parent, she said, it’s “very scary” when you see something that works so well for your child being altered so significantly.

And while it is the MAD program that has made such a difference for her family, Diane noted there’s major concerns with other parts of the plan like moving Grade 8 students away from their school where programs like band, wood shop and others are normally available, as well as having Grades 10 to 12 in class only half days.

Grace Snider, another parent, said she also doesn’t understand why the department would move successful experiential programs from the Wood Street Centre when it’s taken decades to develop the current space at the downtown school, particularly when there could be other solutions to address health and safety.

“They’ve worked hard at that,” she said of the spaces created at Wood Street, describing the theatre space, computer lab and other parts of the school set up for experiential learning.

Pointing out the new curriculum for the education system focuses largely on experiential learning, she wonders why the department would want to alter the Wood Street programs.

She described the Wood Street Centre as a “safe and welcoming space” for students.

Throughout the protest, the crowd beat drums, waived their signs to those driving by from the Robert Campbell Bridge with many drivers on the road honking their horns in support. At one point the protestors could be heard chanting ‘Heck no, MAD won’t go’. They eventually began marching to the Yukon legislature before heading back to the education building.

Many of those opposed to the plans have argued moving the Wood Street programs to a more conventional school environment will lead to interruptions in what is normally a very focused program.

A number of suggestions have come forward to allow all high school students to attend full-time classes and keep experiential programs at Wood Street. They range from having the Grade 8 F.H. Collins class move to Porter Creek Secondary for the 2020/2021 school year and use the space being made available for the experiential programs to using one high school for Grades 8 and 9 and the other for Grades 10 to 12, among a long list of other possibilities.

Officials with the Department of Education have stated a variety of options were considered and it was through discussions with the principals of F.H. Collins, Porter Creek Secondary and the Wood Street Centre that the plans were developed. The News was unable to confirm the scope, nature, or timing of these consultations.

Moving the experiential programs will mean shifting equipment and supplies to ensure the programs can continue to run properly and department officials will continue working with staff at the three schools, they have said.

“The health and safety of staff and students is our top priority,” education spokesperson Maria Paré stated in an earlier email. “Our goal is to return as a many students as possible to classes in Yukon schools while following all health and safety guidelines.”

Protests are expected to continue throughout this week.

Contact Stephanie Waddell at stephanie.waddell@yukon-news.com

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