Yukonomist: COVID-19 strikes another blow at high-school students

Yukonomist Keith Halliday

They don’t show up very often in COVID-19 case statistics, but they may be one of the groups that suffers the greatest long term damage from the pandemic.

I’m talking about high school students. Young people have lower hospitalization and death rates from the virus compared to their grandparents. But they may suffer serious long-term consequences nonetheless.

Around the world, high school students have seen school disrupted. Less time in the classroom. Less hands-on time in labs. Less one-on-one coaching. Less practice working in teams, communicating and problem solving. Digital lessons are better than nothing, but a far cry from what an inspired teacher can deliver in person.

I found it hard sometimes to stay focused when the teacher was lecturing 10 feet in front of me. It must be even more difficult when you can turn off your camera and microphone and go invisible.

The jump from high school to a good job, whether directly or via post-secondary training, is already difficult. It will be even harder with learning gaps from two COVID-disrupted school years.

Whitehorse high school students had their lessons impacted last spring. This semester, they are spending half their schooling time in school and half studying from home. Everyone is doing their best, but if you’ve spoken to a student or a parent you may have some doubts about how well this half-and-half system is working. Government officials described the situation as “very challenging” for some students, and have put more support services in place.

COVID-19 risks widening our already divided education system. Some families can provide high-speed internet and laptops for their kids to do digital lessons. They can hire one of the many tutors in town. Some kids may be able to zoom into their classes from desks in their own rooms, with a working-from-home parent on hand to encourage.

But what if you live in a small apartment without your own room? Without your own computer? Maybe without broadband? What if you were already struggling in school even before COVID-19 hit?

Or if your parents have jobs that leave you alone at home all day?

What if the school breakfast program was something you looked forward to hungrily, literally?

It made me wonder what a different approach might look like. Masha Gessen of the New Yorker recently tried to do just this in a visionary piece on what a COVID-era school system might look like in Manhattan. She imagined a system where emergency education funding hired more teachers, and vacant office space was repurposed to set up additional COVID-distanced classrooms.

It’s an interesting thought exercise. And not as outlandish as it might sound. Government agencies have achieved impressive things under the pressure of COVID-19. Stodgy health ministries in some provinces moved quickly to more than double the number of intensive-care beds. The famously conservative Canada Revenue Agency set up — in just a few weeks! — a new computer system that handled 27.5 million applications for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit.

So, what would have to believe for Gessen’s vision to be possible here in the Yukon?

First you would have to believe that the Yukon government could find the money for 60 more staff. The Department of Education estimated that full-time, in-person school for all Whitehorse high school students would require 35 to 60 more educators. Assuming a round number of $100,000 each, those 60 workers are $6 million per year. Media reports indicated the government still had $1.6 million of the federal pandemic schools funding it hadn’t spent yet. The remaining $4.4 million represents a quarter of one percent of Yukon government spending this year. The government sucks up far bigger unexpected costs from a bad forest fire season.

Second, you would have to believe that either a shift system or under-used real estate was available for more classrooms. Some countries have experimented with schools being open longer hours, although this requires classrooms to be cleaned intensively when the second shift of students moves in.

Another option is satellite classrooms. If you drive around town, a number of options come to mind. The Department of Education itself is the former Vocational School and the officials could work somewhere else. The Legislature and the lobby of the main Administration Building are roomy and in walking distance of F.H. Collins. The new Francophone school was designed for 150 students but only had 85 students when it opened. It’s atrium apparently holds 200 people and it has a theatre. Not many conventions are happening in the Westmark conference rooms. How about the Arts Centre or the Old Firehall? The MacBride Museum, Roundhouse or Beringia Centre?

This would be logistically challenging and of course all the “safe six” precautions need to be accounted for. But if New York can set up emergency field hospitals, we can probably figure out a way to hold emergency classes in such settings.

The third thing you would have to believe is that there are 35 to 60 people in Whitehorse willing to teach on an emergency basis. The options include everyone who could currently be a substitute teacher, which is a lot of people. Think about ex-teachers, retired teachers, recent university graduates, Yukon University part-time instructors, corporate trainers or Yukon Native Teacher Education Program participants.

These Yukoners would have to be hired, put through a crash course significantly more intensive than what substitute teachers receive currently, and paired with a veteran teacher to improve their effectiveness. Think of it as the Yukon Emergency Teaching Corps.

Fourth, you would have to believe that the government could do all this in a couple of months. Right now, that’s the amount of time before the second semester starts.

Alas, the thought exercise remains just that. Last week, the Department of Education announced that the half-in-person, half-at-home schooling model would continue for the rest of the year.

According to the Department, the money was not the obstacle. It was finding the real estate and the 35 to 60 new staff.

All of the options above have challenges. But it’s an emergency. And the logistics of these ideas need to be weighed against the negative impacts to high schoolers by prolonged stretches of remote schooling.

The good news is that we have two months to come up with creative in-person solutions before next semester starts. It’s similar to the problem of how to return the MAD program to its Wood Street home, a problem which appeared unsolvable until the department found a new solution last week.

Hospital managers and our friends at the Canada Revenue Agency already had their chance to shine. Now safe full-time in-person high school is the Department of Education’s opportunity.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist and received the bronze for Outstanding Columnist in the 2019 Canadian Community Newspaper Awards.

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