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Superintendent says back-to-school agreement will get done

Joe Rhodes -
Joe Rhodes
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The Cowichan Valley School District’s superintendent said he believes if students aren’t back in classrooms for the first day of school on Sept. 2, it won’t be later than mid-September before they return.

“Pressure will mount and it won’t be long, by mid-September, intolerance for the situation will drive a solution,” Joe Rhodes said. “Within the system, we’re saying it won’t go past mid-September. Teachers will put pressure on their union and parents and the community on government.”

His lips to God’s ears, for many parents who are trying to figure out what to do with their children if students aren’t back in classes this Tuesday. (See accompanying story from the parents perspective.)

Rhodes said it’s the unknown of how long the teachers’ strike could last that’s got many parents worried. Parents wanting to keep up to date can visit http://www.sd79.bc.ca/ for the latest news.

“The challenge is no one has any sense of how long it could last, do they need to plan for a week, two weeks or a month?” Rhodes said. “If people knew the timeline, there’d be less angst in the system. How do you prepare for the unknown?”

Having said that, since re-opening after closing for a summer break, the school board office isn’t being flooded with calls.

“It’s been remarkably quiet, because we don’t know any more than they do,” Rhodes said, referring to the fact the teachers and their employer have both agreed to a media blackout, until there’s something to report.

Mediator Vince Ready has agreed to mediate the two sides, once he’s confident there’s a chance for a deal. The two sides met in Victoria on Wednesday.

“I’m sure there’s a lot of angst out there, but we’re not hearing a lot,” the superintendent said, adding people do stop him in the street, hoping for an inside scoop.

As to whether parents are yanking their kids out of public schools, he said there’s been “a smattering, not a flood. He anticipated School District 79 will lose some students to independent schools.

Bev Pulyk, superintendent for Island Catholic Schools said historically, during the past 20 years, independent school enrollment jumps to 4% from its usual 2.5% annual growth following a public school strike.

She said interest in Catholic schools has increased since the strike, but not significantly.

Rhodes said parents have a couple of choices beyond waiting for the outcome of the strike. They can home school their children — not an option if parents have full-time jobs — or they can visit the Ministry of Education’s website at  www.bcparentinfo.ca for educational resources to keep students involved academically until they can return to school.

Distance education, offered through the South Island Distance Education School, is not currently an option, as the facility is behind picket lines.

Beyond the educational cost, the strike has impacted some of the work that historically gets done during the school hiatus.

While the schools themselves are clean and in good shape since they haven’t been behind picket lines, normal maintenance and capital work hasn’t been done this summer because the maintenance department, next to the district office, has been picketed.

Another challenge: buses, which have to be inspected annually are behind picket lines and so even if school starts on Sept. 2, the district wouldn’t be able to use all of its fleet.

The B.C. government is offering parents with children 12 and under in public schools $40 per day for every day of the strike to pay for daycare or education. According to the website, most payments will be processed within 30 days after the month in which the labour disruption ends. So parents will have to finance any additional costs upfront themselves.

Rhodes said he hadn’t personally heard any feedback from parents about what they think of the funding, but has read various opinions in the media.

“Some are saying it’s buying people off, I’ve heard some parents are pooling their money and hiring teachers to teach their kids and everything in between.”

The reality, he said, is that under the School Act, a certain number of educational hours have to be delivered to each student and, “we need to deliver it.” If the school year gets a late start, then the time will have to be made up elsewhere.

And his advice for parents, as to what to do with their kids?

“Continue using the support you used at the end of June,” Rhodes said, when the teachers first went on strike. “It’s tough for parents without any support.”

Despite the acrimonious history between teachers and their employers during the past many years, School District No. 79’s top executive said the situation is much better locally.

“Since the beginning of this dispute I’ve been impressed by the co-operation of the community and parents,” Rhodes said.

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