Tuesday August 25, 2020 ~ LANGFORD, BC [UPDATE: Education Minister Rob Fleming is giving a livestreamed Back to School update on August 26 at 1:45 pm]
by Mary P Brooke, B.Sc., Editor ~ Island Social Trends
While detailed and painstakingly assembled guidelines have been developed by school districts in alignment with Provincial Health Officer (PHO) Orders and the Ministry of Education for back-to-school during COVID, a comment this evening by one Langford teen says it all: “It just doesn’t feel right.”
That’s a simple yet authentic and powerful summary of the dilemma that students, families and teens find themselves in. It was stated to this editor with a tone of studied worry, giving evidence of a great deal of thinking and emoting before today.
Full-time attendance is mandatory:
Today the Sooke School District (SD62) announced their plan. It is well organized with respect to PHO orders and the Ministry’s Return to School guidelines. And in some respects it is thoughtfully creative, particularly how for secondary students (in Grades 9 to 12) will not have their course selections interrupted (even if the pandemic worsens and students must retreat back into isolation at home and learning remotely).
While elementary and middle school students will attend full-time Monday to Friday, high school students also will attend half days Monday to Friday but barrel through one course every five weeks by doing intensive levels of homework after their half-day in-class attendance.
Summer classes that are done all at once (in a five-week blast) have had great success, said SD62 Superintendent Scott Stinson today in a presentation to media. There was also a presentation to the public during a livestreamed SD62 Education Policy committee meeting this evening.
Many people and communities have — over the last six months of the pandemic — often remarked that COVID-19 has delivered some silver linings. Some of the upside benefits of the pandemic have included spending more time with family, savings on expenditures by having no access to retail for a few months or seeing reduced work-related expenditures (like meals out, transportation, clothes, makeup and personal services like at hair salons).
In the case of education, COVID has not only forced an adaptation to learning for senior students that could be positive, COVID has also drawn out a previously under-engaged audience of parents who submitted dozens of questions to the SD62 Board Chair and Superintendent this evening during the online meeting.
Most of the expected concerns were voiced by parents (and possibly some teachers and students — hard to tell, as the Zoom call moderator did not really verify anyone’s identification).
There were questions about the use of masks, density of full-time classroom attendance, and how attendance will be handled if one sibling gets exposed to COVID but the other has not.
School bus route will be adjusted:
The school buses in SD62 will have designated seating for students by name. That will help with contact tracing by public health as required.
Drivers will wear masks or face shields. Stinson recommended that parents drive their children to school and pick them up as an alternative to using the school buses, as one added precaution to additional potential exposure to COVID.
The usual number of students taking the bus in SD62 is about 4,700. That is expected to be lower this year. Routes will be reorganized once the SD62 administration office hears back from all interested parents as to their intention to use the service for sending their children to school in 2020-2021.
Concerns about in-classroom learning during the pandemic:
Board Chair Ravi Parmar said to the school audience today that it’s okay to be worried, that he is too.
Parents are probably feeling the distress most acutely. Public education is a right and a mandated service in BC, but an invisible virus makes choices difficult.
Remote learning is an option if students need to stay home if infected or exposed to COVID-19. Full-on home schooling is available through the Ministry of Education at any time, and this year has become a favourable option for some families.
Superintendent Stinson said the Ministry of Education has not provided additional funds to school districts for additional counselling or programming around mental health and anxiety, but that trauma-informed approaches will be taken proactively, including for support of teachers.
One member of the public asked “why is there more focus on secondary over primary and middle” student arrangements. The Superintendent’s answer was that it was “easier to separate out the (Grade 9 to 12) cohorts”. He added that it is the Provincial Health Officer’s assessment that there is “low transmission among children”.
Stinson, meanwhile, seemed pleased that individual schools are making the decisions about actual organization of classrooms. This would add the greatest sense of control in a situation that really doesn’t have a lot of controllable factors against an unseen insidious virus.
Can plans change?
Superintendent Stinson also repeated a few times in tonight’s online session that SD62 will comply with PHO orders, and will adapt if any of those orders or Ministry of Education guidelines change.
When asked specifically about why physical distancing is required “everywhere except schools”, Stinson replied: “We take our direction from public health. I respond to that and we take direction for that.”
Stinson says that SD62 is open to further input from parents, best done by email to firstname.lastname@example.org . Provincial Health Officer Dr Bonnie Henry herself in recent weeks encouraged parents to contact school districts if they have concerns.
There is also an online petition with a polite letter that automatically gets sent to your MLA, organized by the BC Teachers Federation (BCTF), which will continue to press government for the best possible handling of back-to-school during the pandemic.
Teachers have expressed concerns about overcrowded classrooms, and classrooms that have “carpet on the walls and no windows”. Clean surfaces and ventilation are two expectations of the PHO guidance and Ministry of Education guidelines for safe schools during the pandemic.
SD62 parent survey coming August 26:
SD62 will release a survey tomorrow (Wednesday August 26) by which parents can express their concerns using the online interface called ThoughtExchange. SD62 Associate Superintendent said at tonight’s EP meeting that “it’s a beautiful survey”, without revealing anything about its range of questions.
Stinson likes ThoughtExchange for how it allows participants to go back in and re-rank their own and other people’s suggestions. However, the interface could be said to be overly fluid, in that a framework for questions is not always strong. Leaving things open-ended can sometimes lead to a few forceful thinkers tipping the results unduly.
Second wave could happen:
A second wave of COVID-19 spread in the community is possible if not likely this fall or winter, on top of the annual influenza season.
Until there is an effective treatment or vaccine against COVID-19, the only proven measures of protection (as Dr Henry often reminds) are physical distancing, frequent hand washing, maintaining a known and manageable social bubble with family, friends and co-workers, and staying home if you’re feeling the least bit unwell.
Learning Groups in SD62:
The 11,100 students coming to school in SD62 for 2020-2021 will be organized into learning groups. After teachers get organized after the Labour Day long weekend starting on Tuesday September 8 and 9, students will be phased-in with classroom orientation September 10 and 11. The focus will be how to follow the health and safety protocols.
The first full day back for regular instruction will be Monday September 14.
The Education Policy (EP) Committee is chaired by Trustee Bob Phillips. The next EP meeting is on Tuesday, September 8.
BC Ministry of Education – Return to School Plan (last update August 21, 2020)
SD62 – Back to School Plan (released August 25, 2020)
BCTF Petition to MLAs (August 22, 2020)
===== About the writer: Mary P Brooke, B.Sc., Cert PR has been covering the news of SD62 at the board level since 2014. She is the editor and publisher of Island Social Trends (formerly West Shore Voice News).