Despite widespread concerns over the spread of COVID-19, over 90 per cent of parents are planning to send their children back to school when classes resume this month in the Alberni Valley, Tofino, Ucluelet and Bamfield.
In a letter sent to parents on Sept. 4, Greg Smith, School District 70’s head superintendent, noted a strong desire among many families to have their children back in the classroom when facilities reopen for students on Sept. 10 and 11. As was the case across the province, SD70’s schools closed during the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic after the March break. Schools reopened as an option for parents later in the spring, but most families kept their children home to avoid contracting the incurable respiratory disease.
The school district has stated that a hybrid classroom and home learning option like what was offered in the spring will not be available this fall.
“The response is not uniformly distributed throughout the district, but there is a clear, strong and consistent desire from parents to have their children return to their schools with their peers and classroom teachers this school year – even if it means waiting to see how the first weeks go before sending their children to school,” wrote Smith.
All schools are now required to maximise in-class instruction within guidelines set by the B.C. Ministry of Health. Part of these guidelines will be “learning groups” to limit the number of contacts students have during the day. For SD70’s elementary children, individual classes will serve as the learning groups. Each group of students will stay with each other throughout the day, including during outdoor recess and lunch periods.
“Outside a learning group, appropriate physical distancing will remain the expectation,” wrote Smith.
The arrangement is more complex for high school students attending Alberni District Secondary or Ucluelet Secondary. Morning classes will keep a learning group together, covering two courses of material over the first eight weeks. But some mixing is expected in the afternoons, as teenagers from different learning groups will be in the same classroom to study their elective options. This will require physical distancing and preventative requirements, such as wearing face masks.
Last school year 1,369 of SD70’s students identified as Aboriginal, comprising 30 per cent of the student population. Ten Nuu-chah-nulth education workers are distributed throughout the school district, who will be supporting these students navigate through the new COVID-19 measures.
Richard Samuel, a cultural development supervisor who manages the NEW workers, said that the team is currently helping school principals connect with students to inform them of what the next school year will be like - even if families can’t be reached by telephone.
“They’re able to track them down through other means, like social media, Facebook messenger, or any other kind of means that they have,” he said. “They have a personal connection with all of these families.”
Samuel noted that when studies resumed in the spring, the need for daily connections with students became evident, as many continued their schooling remotely.
“Back in the springtime a lot of NEWs did a lot of cultural learning though other means,” said Samuel. “They created videos, they created Powerpoints for the students to interact that way to learn how our people are traditionally. They were very innovative during that time.”
Although most of SD70’s students are returning to full-time classes this September, some have chosen to study through the school district’s online platform for home studies, Distributed Learning, or other remote learning options. Samuel said that the NEW workers will be supporting students who opt for home schooling by providing material each week and regularly checking in.
“The Nuu-chah-nulth education role primarily is for cultural learning opportunities for students and teachers,” he said. “When it comes to academic support, we’re looking at student achievement where they work together with all school staff and work as a team to ensure the student is achieving well academically through the school year.”
Under normal circumstances two of Letitia Charleson’s children would be starting classes at Haahuupayak Elementary this September. But after the number of B.C.’s active cases rose from less than 200 to almost 1,200 over the last two and a half months, the risk of infection is too great for Charleson’s family bear. As her daughter prepares to start Grade 1, Charleson is concerned with how quickly germs spread among young children.
“With my middle child, my daughter, as soon as she started going to daycare, as soon as she went back to school, little colds and flu would come back into the household,” said Charleson. “Putting on top of that COVID-19, it’s just a huge risk for my household. I feel like it’s jumping a little bit too fast and I feel that there should have been more smaller steps.”
Adding to this concern is that Charleson’s daughter has asthma, and her one-year-old son is at risk due to respiratory issues.
“Common colds drain into his respiratory area as he’s been in the hospital in his first year, just needing extra oxygen to get to his heart,” she explained.
The mother has had to adapt by stepping away from studies she planned to begin this fall at North Island College, instead serving as a full-time teacher for her 11-year-old son and five-year-old daughter.
“I will just continue staying at home focusing on our children’s education,” said Charleson. “Each family and each household have different priorities and different choices.”
For those parents who will be sending their children back on Sept. 10 and 11, entry into schools will be discouraged to mitigate risk of infection inside the facilities. The school district announced more efforts to clean and disinfect facilities, although there will be no new roles to check students or staff for symptoms of coronavirus infection.
If a student displays possible symptoms, SD70 guidelines state that the child must be immediately separated from others, given a mask and arranged to be taken home. Each school will have a designed isolation room for this purpose, but the symptomatic child’s class will not be automatically quarantined.
“Staff responsible for facility cleaning must clean and disinfect the space where the student was separated and any areas used by them,” states the SD70 guidelines.