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Opinion: B.C. was absolutely right to keep schools open during COVID-19

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B.C. has done many things differently than other provinces when it comes to dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of the key differences is B.C. keeping its K-12 school system open with in-person learning the entire school year.

It has been a controversial decision. The BC Teachers’ Federation has challenged almost every aspect of the reopening plans. Social media has been home to critics savagely attacking keeping schools open, with many spreading misinformed claims about classrooms.

While all provinces began the school year with in-person learning, some – notably Ontario, Manitoba and Alberta – have switched to online learning for long stretches of the year. The result has been a confusing, unpredictable mess of a school year in many places outside of B.C.

Dr. Bonnie Henry has insisted since B.C. schools reopened last spring that there is low transmission in schools and that protecting the mental health of young people was worth what was - and remains - a relatively small risk of getting the virus from inside a school.

Indeed, a recent report by Ontario’s Science Advisory Panel concluded school closures have a widespread and significant negative impact on students’ mental and physical health as well as their academic achievement

To its credit, the BC NDP government has let Henry and public health officials make the determination of risks and benefits that flow from having schools open - just as it gives public health the lead hand on pretty much all COVID-19 decisions.

As I have noted in this space before, Premier John Horgan told me when the pandemic began he would not be the lead public face on this issue and would leave things pretty much up to Henry, Health Minister Adrian Dix and other cabinet ministers.

That stands in stark contrast to some other premiers, notably Ontario’s Doug Ford and Alberta’s Jason Kenney. Ford, in particular, has presided over clumsy, inconsistent and political approaches that sometimes closes schools and sometimes does not. Ontario has now closed all schools until the next school year.

Just as B.C. took a softer approach when it came to in-person dining - for much of the year, this province was the only province west of New Brunswick where you could sit down at an indoor table at a restaurant and enjoy a meal with others - we have taken a softer approach when it came to schools.

B.C. parents overwhelmingly support the continued reopening while parents in Ontario are feeling quite the opposite right now.

Some things have been hit and miss in this pandemic. Officials in all provinces were slow to act to curb the threat of COVID-19 on long-term care homes, for example, and the border with the U.S. stayed open too long.

But B.C. got it right when it came to keeping our schools open. As the end of the school year approaches, it is worth noting cases associated with school-aged kids have remained consistently low since the pandemic began: fewer than 25,000 cases (4% of the school population) and less than 130 hospitalized (.02%). 

B.C. schools are safe and they are open. Both of those accomplishments rank as two of the province’s biggest and most important victories in this pandemic.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC.