Children ride their bikes through Ahousaht during the community’s parade for school graduates in June. In the early months of the coronavirus pandemic students were provided with materials to learn at home, but this month in-person classes resume for Maaqtusiis Elementary and Secondary. (Curt McLeod photo)
Education officials have been working hard over the past few months developing plans to ensure a safe return to school for their preschool to Grade 12 students. While some parents and students are anxious for the school year to start, there are still many concerned about the chances of their child being exposed to the virus that causes COVID-19.
The pandemic forced the closure of many schools following the March 2020 spring break. In some cases, students in smaller schools were able to return as long as social distancing and other safety precautions were in place.
Following an extended spring break due to the pandemic, Ahousaht educators delivered an option that allowed students to continue their class work from home. But this required the teachers to compile materials while they and other education staff sanitized the books and supplies and arranged for safe pick-up of the items.
Ahousaht Director of Education Rebecca Atleo noted that the remote learning model Maaqtusiis School implemented in the spring had limited success. She said that one teacher with more than 20 students would send out work each week with only half the material coming back completed.
Ahousaht has about 240 students attending classes from preschool to Grade 12. There is also a Headstart program operated by the Ahousaht Education Authority but the number of children going there this year is unknown.
This year the plan is to open both Maaqtusiis Elementary and Secondary Schools on Sept. 24, after teachers return to the community for work on Sept. 14. Atleo noted that the teachers moving to Ahousaht from elsewhere will go into voluntary self-isolation for two weeks as a precaution.
“We have had a few strategic meetings to ensure safety of everyone involved…kids, staff community,” Atleo said.
Beginning in May, Ahousaht’s education leaders began to strategize on how they would start the school year while keeping everyone safe. According to Atleo, they looked at everything from how people would enter the school, to sanitizing surfaces, to keeping people socially distanced.
“We did a deep clean of the elementary school when the building was empty,” she added.
A back-to-school safety plan was developed in consultation with the First Nations Health Authority and NTC nurse Kelly Dennis.
“We sent school reopening plans to them and are waiting on feedback from First Nations Health Authority,” Atleo stated.
In addition to sanitizing the AEA (Ahousaht Education Authority) has ordered a bulk supply of masks for the students and face shields for staff along with sanitizers.
“Three people will be hired to sanitize touch surfaces; they will be there everyday school is in session to clean,” said Atleo.
The AEA will also hire a full-time school nurse.
“We felt it would help parents feel more comfortable knowing there is a health professional on site,” Atleo stated.
The nurse would assist students and staff on safety protocols and would be trained to provide COVID-19 testing.
“We have received extra (government) funding to set up things like plexiglass barriers and have done that in reception areas,” said Atleo.
She noted that the federal government has injected $12 million into Canada’s First Nations’ schools.
“We are waiting to see what portion is coming to Ahousaht, and once we get that, we can modify and amend plans where needed,” said Atleo.
The AEA provides all Maaqtusiis Elementary/Secondary students with supplies. While masks are not yet mandatory, that could change.
“If FNHA recommends that they be mandated to wear masks and the students can’t bring one, we will provide them,” said Atleo.
The AEA will invite parents to mini information sessions before school starts.
“We will be bringing experts in to share information and answer questions of parents,” said Atleo.
And if there’s a breakout in the community, the schools will follow the lead of the band office.
“If there were to be a breakout we’d probably completely shut down,” she noted.
Atleo understands the concerns of parents and advises them to heed B.C. Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry’s words: “Be safe, be kind.” She urges people to get their information from a reliable source.