Columbia River-Revelstoke MLA Doug Clovechok served as vice-chair of the B.C. legislature finance committee for 2020. (Hansard TV)

COVID-19 makes broader online access urgent, B.C. MLAs say

Colleges, universities face reduced tuition revenue

The surge of internet service delivery in the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed gaps in affordable online access for many people in B.C., the legislature finance committee says.

The annual pre-budget consultation was itself conducted online for 2020, with participation higher than usual, said committee chair Bob D’Eith, MLA for Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows. The committee had 3,625 responses to an online survey of priorities for Finance Minister Carole James’ next budget, with 1,362 written and video submissions and 281 presentations, all delivered by video and phone conference during June.

“This year, we saw the highest level of participation in nearly 10 years, with British Columbians describing how the COVID-19 pandemic exposed gaps in supports and services and impacted groups differently,” D’Eith said in submitting the committee’s report. “The committee recognizes that the next budget is an opportunity to address these gaps and inequities and continue to make progress on reconciliation, diversity, inclusion and accessibility.”

Columbia River-Revelstoke MLA Doug Clovechok, the deputy chair, said online access is a significant challenge, particularly for rural and remote communities. The report notes that health care, education and work have become more dependent on digital networks, along with entertainment, community and family connections restricted by public health orders.

B.C. colleges and universities are making rapid shifts to online learning, as the public school system gears up for in-person studies with protective measures. They are also dealing with a the loss of tuition revenue as international and domestic students, with Camosun College and Okanagan College among those expecting staff cuts, and calling for the ability to use reserve funds to get through the pandemic.

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Canadian Parents for French B.C. and Yukon has joined opposition MLAs in calling for better access to remote learning.

“The availability of French immersion distance learning courses is close to zero,” executive director Glyn Lewis said Aug. 21. “Additionally, some parents are being forced to de-register from their local programs if they choose to home school.”

The finance committee made 124 recommendations for the next provincial budget, with the B.C. government dealing with a sudden record deficit for the current year estimated at $13.5 billion. The NDP government got unanimous consent in an emergency session this spring to borrow an additional $5 billion for pandemic relief and recovery programs, with $1.5 billion of that still to be allocated for business recovery in September.

MLAs on the all-party committee included Cariboo-Chilcotin MLA Donna Barnett, Langley East MLA Rich Coleman, Esquimalt-Metchosin MLA Mitzi Dean, Courtenay-Comox MLA Ronna-Rae Leonard and Powell River-Sunshine Coast MLA Nicholas Simons.


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