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PHO: Parents should contact school districts with COVID back-to-school concerns

Input during development of school district plans, before August 21 preparation deadline. | Education vs life-risk.

COVID, return to school
Families are discussing COVID and the return to school. It's a big decision.

Thursday August 6, 2020 ~ VICTORIA, BC [updated 11:40 pm August 6, 2020 and also 10:40 pm August 8, 2020, and more parent comments added August 11, 2020]

Editorial analysis by Mary Brooke, B.Sc., editor ~ West Shore Voice News

Now is the time! Today in Vancouver during a press conference, Dr Bonnie Henry said parents who have concerns about COVID-19 exposure and the return to school in September should contact their local school districts. | In the west shore, Sooke School District 62 (SD62) can be contacted by email at info@sd62.bc.ca or by phone at 250-474-9800 .

Each school district in BC is responsible to develop their own custom operational plan for the 2020-2021 academic year, to be in line with the public health guidelines for the return to school on September 8. The COVID-19 Public Health Guidance for K-12 School Settings was released by the BC Centre of Disease Control and the Ministry of Health on July 29, 2020.

Return to School, K-12, September 2020
K-12 Schools will be in Stage 2 for back to school in September 2020 [BC Ministry of Education]

The guidelines will see the school districts being expected to adhere to Stage 2 within the pandemic framework for schools. Stage 2 sees students in classrooms full time, organized in learning groups or cohorts. For elementary and middle school students (i.e. Kindergarten to Grade 8) the cohorts can be as large as 60 people (students, teachers, staff and bus drivers). For high school students (Grades 9 to 12) the cohort maximum size is 120 people.

Parents will not be allowed to enter the school (as a way to minimize further numbers for contact tracing, says public health).

Dr Bonnie Henry, August 6 2020
Provincial Health Officer Dr Bonnie Henry on Thursday August 6, 2020 during media teleconference in Vancouver.

Cohorts are like the ‘bubbles’ that families and workplaces have been working hard to figure out and stick to. Add to that the exposure of one, two or more students in different grades coming home to any number of family situations (ages, levels of health resilience, financial resilience, etc) and the number of potential COVID exposures for anyone in the cohort (and family by extension), and it is factually questionable as to the safety of having full-time attendance of students in the classroom.

Young children in school will not be required to wear masks, says Dr Henry, but masks will be available at all schools this fall. Older students are to wear masks when physical distancing cannot be maintained — such as in hallways and common areas, but can work at their separated desks without masks. Masks on school buses are recommended as part of the guidelines.

Getting the plans done:

Ravi Parmar, Scott Stinson, SD62
SD62 Chair Ravi Parmar and Superintendent Scott Stinson, at the June 23, 2020 board meeting. [ Screenshot / WSVN]

The 60 school districts in BC have a deadline of August 21 for submitting their COVID-compliant safety plans to the Ministry of Health, and are to post approved plans on their district websites by August 26.

On the west shore, Sooke School District 62 (SD62) Superintendent Scott Stinson said the plans are in the works. “We were expecting Stage 2,” says Stinson. Last week he told West Shore Voice News: “We had some preliminary information with the deputy minister toward the end of last week (week of July 20 to 24), so we’ve had a little bit of time to wrap our heads around it.”

“We had a plan, waiting for this today (July 29), and we’re now meeting with school based principals at each of their levels,” Stinson said on July 29, the day the guidelines were released.

High schools may require the hybrid model:

Superintendent Stinson says the plans are about how to manage the concept of cohort groups, particularly at the secondary level. At the larger schools in SD62 — Belmont Secondary School in Langford and Royal Bay Secondary in Colwood — he says they hope to be able to accommodate all students within the 120 cohort size. That might require some scheduling or timetabling changes, the superintendent explained. “We’re meeting with secondary school principals to see what this could look like,” said Stinson.

Royal Bay Secondary School, Colwood, SD62
SD62’s Royal Bay Secondary School in Colwood will be the largest high school on Vancouver Island once the expansion opens in September 2020. [March 10, 2020 photo – West Shore Voice News]

“Our hope is to get as many students into the classroom as possible,” says Stinson. “That depends on what we can accommodate. If we cannot accommodate a full return then we’ll offer some form of hybrid,” he told West Shore Voice News. “If in planning we can ensure everyone to be included in in-class instruction, the families would have the choice.” He mentions distance learning and home schooling in this context.

High school populations in SD62 are about 1,200 to 1,300 at Belmont, about 1,200 at Royal Bay this fall, and about 700 at Edward Milne Community School in Sooke this fall, says SD62 Board Chair Ravi Parmar.  

The hybrid system of in-class and remote learning “puts a lot of stress on educators and staff, and on the system”, said Parmar on July 29. It sounds like the Ministry received this sort of input from school districts, as the cohort idea has been presented rather firmly, without readily offering a full-on hybrid model from the outset of the 2020-2021 academic year.

The effort of making plans:

Health Minister Adrian Dix, August 6, 2020, COVID, Vancouver
Health Minister Adrian Dix on August 6, 2020 during press briefing in Vancouver.

As modern music legend John Lennon so eloquently expressed in the lyrics of his song ‘Beautiful Boy’ as addressed to his own son, on the Double Fantasy album in 1980: “Life is what happens while you’re busy making plans.”

It cannot be emphasized enough that the COVID-19 scenario is a global pandemic — as repeated by Health Minister Adrian Dix several times today in a media teleconference, implying that anything can happen and that changes will be necessary as the scenario evolves.

School districts in BC can expect to be dealing with pandemic conditions for the 2020-2021 academic year, said Minister of Education Rob Fleming in the Stage 2 announcement on July 29. That’s because — as Dr Henry and Minister Dix say often — we are dealing with pandemic conditions until there is an effective treatment or a vaccine against COVID-19.

Education Minister, Rob Fleming
BC Education Minister Rob Fleming during back-to-school announcement on July 29, 2020 in Victoria.

While SD62 and BC public health appear to be willing to be flexible, there really is no choice to make adaptations if and when COVID throws more wrenches into the works.

A return-to-school plan is a valiant stance against a formidable opponent like the COVID-19 coronavirus that attacks wherever, whomever and whenever it can.

As we’ve all seen to date, it’s a silent killer with stealth and resilience. Give COVID an inch (or less than 2 metres presumably) and it will take up residence in a human body every time. To what degree a person’s health is affected is another thing. Some people getting really sick (and some die), while others have mild symptoms or appear to be fully asymptomatic. If infected but asymptomatic, those people are ‘spreaders’ without realizing it.

Academies in SD62 may take a hit:

Royal Bay Secondary, dance class, jazz
Jazz dance performance at Royal Bay Secondary as part of the building expansion celebration [April 17, 2019 – West Shore Voice News photo]

In the SD62 school district in the west shore, the Academy courses (a range of sports, as well as dance and equestrian) are a very popular class option in middle and secondary schools. Students taking those programs (which involve a fee for equipment and other components) will often see students relocating to schools outside their catchment area.

The fate of Academies (and the revenues they generate for the school district) during the pandemic is certainly impacted. “It’s hard to say at this point,” says Stinson. The health and safety guidelines of the BC Centre for Disease Control and Ministry of Health office are specific. “Any plans will have to align very specifically”, says Stinson, adding that “it’s too early to comment”. And that “the goal is to get as close to normal as possible while still keeping in mind the safety of class and students as they return to class as well.”

Music and drama classes may be curtailed:

It’s known that singing and speaking loudly cause the COVID-19 virus to be spread more readily from an infected person. Music and drama classes may need to be curtailed in a COVID safety plan in BC schools this year.

Stakeholder consultations:

Superintendent Stinson says SD62 is consulting all of its stakeholders on development of the COVID-19 safety plans. That includes trustees, senior staff, principals and vice-principals, teachers, support staff, and parents.

“What I want to share with families in the Sooke School District is that District staff, along side our partner groups, are working hard to deliver a plan that follows the guidelines that were released by our Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Henry,” said Chair Ravi Parmar this evening.

“Through this important work over the next few weeks, our number one priority will remain the health and safety of our over 11,000 students and 1,700 staff. Our District also commits to providing regular updates to families as this important work progresses,” said Parmar.

Input from parents:

SPEAC president, Cendra Beaton
SPEAC parent PAC president Cendra Beaton, at the May 2020 Education Policy committee meeting (screenshot) / West Shore Voice News

As of this evening August 6, Cendra Beaton — president of the SD62 parents organization called SPEAC — says: “We haven’t heard the details in depth yet as parents, and this information would provide a better understanding and perspective regarding our children being at school. We look forward to finding out more.”

Dr Bonnie Henry said today in a media conference was that this would be the appropriate time for parents to have input during the development of school district plans (which are due August 21 to the Ministry of Education). In other words, it would make sense to formulate a plan that from the outset includes consideration of parental concerns, as opposed to producing a plan and then dealing with feedback in a relatively short period of time.

There are just 13 days between the August 26 announcement of the operational plans by school districts and the first day back-to-class on Tuesday September 8 (which is realistically just seven business days ahead of the Labour Day long weekend).

Parents have concerns:

Parents are worried that students go to school, become exposed, and possibly bring the COVID-19 virus home. Teachers and staff are worried in the same regard. A 60-student cohort is the ‘bubble’ that comes home with every elementary or middle student; for highschoolers the cohort of 120 introduces that level of exposure to families.

A few local parents have contributed some comments this week:

  • A family of four with two school aged children, whom currently have four other households in their immediate bubble (all families of four with two school aged kids as well), will now face a potential exposure of 28,800 people come back to school with these cohorts of 60 per child. That’s worrisome.” ~ Vasile Dumitru
  • The current plan also doesn’t take into account how much of an impact the families would have from kids bringing COVID home, especially where there are immune compromised family members. I am most interested to see what SD62 comes up with.” ~ Michael Donselaar
  • My children are grown now. But if I still had children at home, I wouldn’t be sending them to school in a pandemic.” ~ a grandmother in Sooke
  • It’s home schooling for our three children, all the way this year.” ~ a family in Langford
  • “We are sending our children back to school in September, but we will watch carefully. If there are local cases, we will pull our kids out.” ~ a summary comment from a few families in Langford
  • I am NOT comfortable with my children returning to in school learning in September for both their physical and their mental health. I have my reasons. Teachers, parents, and children should not be forced into this decision when there are so many ways to make it more safe or to allow for different options. And, why are we not just taking one big ol step back and asking – what are we in so much of a hurry to return to? Why don’t we take this opportunity to reimagine how school SHOULD be.” ~ Kerry Cavers, Sooke
  • My biggest concern is what the Ministry of Education’s plan will look like when implemented in SD62. Dr Henry said again today we won’t be going back to the way school was in March, but to expect major changes. That could mean moving out extra furniture and other items for enough room to put space between tables and desks, and staggering start and end times of school or lunch and recess breaks to minimize the number of people in hallways and other common areas. A draft plan of what that will look like at the district or school level would help parents make more informed decisions about a safe return to school. Communication is key. It’s still summer holidays, but the sooner our district can release even a rough idea of what district staff are doing to implement the plan, the better it will be to hopefully help ease concerns. After plans have been released, if parents have questions about the safety or feasibility of given measures, I can see public health advising districts about specific items that need more details or revision.” ~ Melissa Dasilva

School facility space:

Is there enough space for the physical distancing requirements during COVID? “That’s something we will look at,” says SD62’s board chair. Parmar says that the new Stage 2 framework will be examined along with input from staff. “We will offer a safe return to all students and follow guidelines from the Public Health Officer,” he said on July 29.

SD62, Belmont Secondary, portables
In the 2018-2019 year at Belmont Secondary School there were two portables, and a third one was added in September 2019 [West Shore Voice News photo]

Even before the pandemic, the issue of portable classrooms has always been hotly debated. As the fastest-growing school district per capita in BC, SD62 has had portables at most of its 27 school locations for several years.

As part of the capital plan for building more facilities, portables have always been considered ‘a necessary evil’, something to be rid of as soon as feasible. Being separate from the main school setting was considered an impediment to inclusiveness. Now in order to achieve enough physical distancing in many schools, ironically the portables out in the school yard may become a saving grace.

SD62 Board:

SD62 Board and Administration, West Langford schools announcement, March 2020
SD62 Administration, Board and Community Leaders (from left): Former SD62 Superintendent Jim Cambridge, SD62 Associate Superintendent Stephanie Hedley-Smith, SD62 Superintendent Scott Stinson, Beecher Bay Elder Henry Chipps, SD62 Vice-Chair Bob Beckett, Beecher Bay Chief Russ Chipps, SD62 Chair Ravi Parmar, SD62 Trustee Allison Watson, SD62 Secretary-Treasurer Harold Cull, SD62 Trustee Wendy Hobbs, SD62 Associate Superintendent Dave Strange, Project Manager Alex Samousevitch, District Principal of Capital Projects Windy Beadall, and Associate Superintendent Paul Block at the West Langford school names announcement on Thursday March 12, 2020 in the Learning Commons at Belmont Secondary School. [West Shore Voice News – Mary Brooke]

“The board is optimistic about the ministry’s Stage 2 plan,” said Parmar last week. But he admits: “There’s a lot of anxiety out there. Everyone has a right to have that anxiety.”

The current SD62 Board for 2018-2022 is comprised of seven elected trustees: Chair Ravi Parmar, Vice-Chair Bob Beckett, Wendy Hobbs, and Dianna Seaton (representing the Belmont Zone – Langford and Colwood); and Bob Phillips, Margot Swinburnson, and Allison Watson (representing the Milne’s Landing Zone in the Sooke region). This board almost always speaks in unison behind their chair.

Awaiting input from teachers:

The BC Teachers Federation and Sooke Teachers Association were both contacted last week for their input to this article. No response yet.

Education vs life-risk:

It could take 18 to 24 months for a COVID-19 vaccine to be fully available.

The new updated health and safety guidelines are about “needing to get children back into those important learning environments as soon as we could, safely”, said Dr Henry when the Stage 2 guidelines were announced.

She called it a “robust plan” that puts health and safety of children, teachers and staff as a top priority. “COVID-19 virus has a very low infection rate in children (ages 0 to 19),” it was stated in the BC Ministry of Health’s COVID-19 Guidance for K-12 School Settings (July 29).

August 6, 2020, BC Centre for Disease Control
As of August 6, 2020 there are 3,881 cases of COVID-19 in BC, shown here by age grouping. Today there are 47 new cases, including one in children under age 10, and three in youth ages 10 to 19. [BC Centre for Disease Control]

The current age rates for COVID-19 infection in BC are 78 cases in the under-10-year-old grouping (one more per day in the last two days), and 162 cases in the 10 to 19 age grouping (three more per day in the last two days). That seems low and well-contained.

Children may be carriers of the COVID-19 virus while themselves being asymptomatic.

Children under age 10 get a very mild experience of illness if infected with COVID-19, Dr Henry iterated again today. But it’s still an illness. And some of the longer term effects could be cardiovascular.

Perhaps the cases of COVID-19 infection in children are ‘few’. But it’s a tough pill to swallow if it’s your child that gets sick, or brings the virus home to family. Arguably, the ministry could get behind a stance that it would be difficult to prove how any case in a family was first acquired.

Dr Henry repeated today that the ‘bread and butter’ of public health is contact tracing. If one student — of family member of a student — gets a positive test result for COVID, that could see a lot of student absences from the ‘full time classroom’ during 2020-2021.

“For students, being in class is about learning, seeing friends, getting those important emotional and social supports as well as an important education,” said Dr Henry as part of the rationale for a full return to school in September. As of July 29, it had been over 175 days since some students have been in the classroom; the last day of regular classes before spring break was March 13.

Today Dr Henry reiterated what she has been told by educators, that some vulnerable learners who fall behind in their educational progress never do catch up. That mindset might be valid in any other time than a pandemic.

COVD-19, viruses
Humanity now at war with the microscopic novel coronavirus called COVID-19. | About the COVID-19 virus (BC Centre for Disease Control}

The COVID-19 virus lurks everywhere. Avoiding the virus in robust ways might be considered more important than educational setbacks, no matter how dramatic those setbacks might be. Parents who must look their children in the eye before sending them to school know in their gut what is more important. Hence the continued discomfort and verbal concern of parents about the entire idea of ‘back to school’ during an infectious pandemic.

In BC — especially because most people have followed public health advice and stayed home to avoid exposure to the virus — the idea of an omnipresent virus still seems a bit ephemeral or surreal. We can’t see it. That makes it easy to become complacent or — quite frankly — to conceive that we have some level of control. Self-isolation is grinding people down, producing mental health issues and the sense of rebellion seen in young adults who go out partying despite the good public health advice against it. “It’s time to accept that COVID-19 is here. Stop the spread. That’s enough now,” said Health Minister Dix today.

Dr Henry and public health have done a good job of convincing everyone that physical distancing and hand washing are the most powerful tools against COVID-19. But to herd young children and teens back into classrooms — no matter how well-arranged the furniture is or how well-staggered the class times — seems counter-intuitive to the many aspects of COVID guidance that insist on small groups in public places and businesses.

Regathering students, teachers, staff and others into physical school settings this fall is kind of like standing at the edge of a slippery pool and expecting you won’t fall in because you’ve taken your swimming training and you’re wearing your sturdy runners. Life is more complicated than that. ~ MPB

Hon John Horgan, MLA [Langford-Juan de Fuca]
Hon John Horgan, MLA [Langford-Juan de Fuca]
Mary Brooke, editor, West Shore Voice News
Mary Brooke, Editor and Publisher, West Shore Voice News [file photo 2018]

===== About the writer: West Shore Voice News editor Mary P Brooke, B.Sc. is the mother of four grown children who attended the BC public education system in SD61 and SD62. She has been covering the news of SD62 in detail at the board level since 2014. | Contact: news@westshorevoicenews.com