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Opinion: Vulnerable Vancouver high schoolers failed by pandemic class schedule

A Vancouver parent wishes she lived in another Lower Mainland community where high schoolers are able to spend significantly more time receiving in-class instruction.
A teenager does schoolwork on a laptop. Photo by kajakiki via Getty Images

Vancouver is awesome – unless you’re in high school. Then you want to live in Burnaby, North Vancouver or Richmond.

I never dreamed I’d wish I lived in Surrey. No offense, Surrey. But I often fantasize about it now. Or a 20-minute drive in any direction, for that matter, from my home in Vancouver. Then my 13-year-old son would be in school from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day.

Instead, the Vancouver School Board offers its students one measly class for an hour and 45 minutes each day. Since my son mostly has morning classes this means he’s done for the day at 10:35 a.m. After which he sometimes hangs out with friends. Outside of course, as they’re not allowed in each other’s homes. When it’s raining – which it is, more often than not these days – he comes home and whiles away the endless unstructured hours on the Xbox or mindlessly scrolling TikTok.  

And now halfway through Grade 8, his first vulnerable year of high school, I’m really starting to worry about the mental and academic repercussions this lost year is going to have on him.

The VSB’s plan back in September was that students would also attend a remote online class every day. Or so I thought. Every day turned out to be two to three times a week. And I wouldn’t call them ‘lessons.’  His teachers log on for 15 to 30 minutes, touch base with students, answers questions about homework and sign off. Leaving them on their own to figure it all out. Or play video games.

Since my husband and I both work from home we eat lunch together and help my son stay on task with homework. That’s not to say it’s all smooth sailing. There is nagging, yelling, whining and crying. Tears of frustration have flown – his and mine. 

Some of his friends whose parents are essential workers are home alone all day. Thirteen-year-olds. At home. Alone. All day. Every day. It’s a recipe for anxiety and depression. They’re stressed out over the overwhelming independent work and unmotivated to hand in assignments. It’s not a great start to their secondary education.

And parents are forced to play teacher, principal, and police officer. One mom I know turns off the Internet via an app from work so she can keep her son off the PlayStation. I’ve heard many parents say all of this is ruining their relationship with their child. And all at a time when young teens are already naturally slipping into a hormonal malaise and pushing boundaries.  

After hundreds of parents complained about the inadequate 8.75 hours a week instruction Vancouver high schoolers are receiving (the Ministry of Education says they’re legally entitled to 25.5 hours) the Vancouver School Board has made modifications to start this week. They’re including two more in-person classes a week (for a total of 10.75 hours) for Grade 8s only. (Nothing for Grades 9 through 12.)

Most other districts in the Lower Mainland have welcomed their Grades 8 and 9 back full time since September. And their Grades 10 through 12 are getting 18 to 22 hours of in-class instruction time.

I try to quell my constant worrying about my son’s educational and emotional well-being with the fact that it’s a pandemic, after all. As we’re told over and over it’s a time to survive, not necessarily thrive. I should be thankful my son is healthy – and still relatively happy. And really it’s only a year.

But it’s a year those lucky enough to live in Surrey aren’t being deprived of. Are those students, who are getting 15 more hours of instruction a week, going to have an advantage when applying to University in a few short years? Will those students emerge from the pandemic with their mental health intact?

The one thing getting me through it all is the hope that next year will be different. But rumours are already circulating that the Vancouver School Board has plans to continue this hybrid of half on/half off (fully not working) instruction next fall. No one knows what September will hold. Most of us have an inkling that life won’t be fully back to normal. But it can be – or as close to it as possible – for Vancouver’s youngest most vulnerable teenagers. Indeed, if you live anywhere in the Lower Mainland, except for Vancouver, it already is.

Carly Krug is a freelance writer, and former lifestyle reporter for 24 Hours newspaper, whose work has appeared in Flare, Elle, House&Home and TV Guide.