Central Okanagan Public Schools is ready to identify itself as a Sanctuary Schools zone to support students living with a precarious immigration status.
Following the example set by the New Westminster School District in May 2017, the Central Okanagan Board of Education is about to become the second school district in the province to adopt the Sanctuary Schools policy.
The Sanctuary Schools policy effectively would bar school district officials from sharing information about students with immigration authorities – unless required by law.
The intent is to encourage immigrant families with no citizenship status or partial status to feel safe in enrolling their children in public schools without fear of families being separated.
The issue is not as divisive in Canada as in the U.S., where former president Donald Trump attempted to apply political public pressure on churches and cities which had declared as sanctuary zones to protect immigrants with partial or no residency status working and living in their communities.
Trustee Norah Bowman introduced the motion at the Central Okanagan Board of Education meeting on Wednesday (June 22), saying it reinforces the school district’s core value to welcome all children who reside in a community to attend school.
Bowman said education is a moral and legal right for every child.
Making a presentation to the issue, guest presenter Amy Cohen, co-founder of RAMA Okanagan and an advocate for immigrant families with no or limited status in the Okanagan, said federal government estimates indicate there are 500,000 people with no residency status currently in Canada, and another 1.6 million with limited status.
“In B.C., the estimate for the Metro Vancouver region is about 10,000 people. There is no official count in the Okanagan but it is in the hundreds, families with no or limited status, and who have kids in local schools…they are already here,” Cohen said.
A professor of anthropology at Okanagan College, Cohen said she has been doing research on the subject in recent months, and notes that some immigrant parents keep their kids out of school to avoid the possibility of being separated.
“It is very hard for these children who see the other kids going to school and they have to stay home,” Cohen noted.
“Children have a legal right to get an education.”
The school district currently has a broad mandate of welcoming all students into the public school system including a staffed Welcome Centre, a first step for immigrant parents to enrol their children in school and seek out social or cultural services that might assist them.
When the New Westminster School District established its Sanctuary Schools policy, one of the main steps from that was to initiate a similar Welcome Centre service for immigrant families.
Kevin Kaardal, Central Okanagan Public Schools superintendent/CEO, said he has spoken with his New Westminster counterpart, and was told about six students currently are admitted to its local schools under the policy.
Some trustees raised questions about funding for those students as they don’t fall under the provincial funding guidelines, and filling up spaces at schools already beyond maximum enrolment.
Kevin Kaardal, Central Okanagan Public Schools superintendent/CEO, said he has spoken with his New Westminster counterpart about how that district adopted the initiative.
“We are not going to see a rush of students by adopting this policy, in part because of the measures we already have in place,” Kaardal said.
He added from New Westminster’s experience, there are alternative options for securing funding for Sanctuary Schools students.
Cohen noted that if a Sanctuary Schools policy only directly affected one child coming to school rather than being harboured at home, it is worth it.
“We want or kids to be able to pursue their dreams,” said Cohen.
The board of education adopted the Sanctuary Schools policy and will await followup from school district staff on its implementation.