Classes resuming after the summer break in September promises to more hectic than usual due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The B.C. Ministry of Education has announced all school classes from Kindergarten to Grade 12 will return next month, but many of the details regarding how schools will cope with COVID-19 public health regulations remain questions seeking answers.
Central Okanagan Board of Education chair Moyra Baxter said trustees met for a Zoom meeting with the school district superintendent, deputy superintendent and secretary-treasurer last week to better understand how the school district will adapt to the ministry of education school opening mandate.
“There were a lot of questions that trustees had, but in the end, it boils down to a lot of planning will go into this, a lot of having to change how we normally do things, and the board acknowledges many questions are being posed by parents and staff as well,” Baxter said.
She said every school district likely faces unique challenges in meeting the ministry mandates on how schools are to function, and the Central Okanagan School District is no different.
Baxter said school districts need to have a school opening plan submitted by Aug. 21 which the ministry will sign off on by Aug. 26, at which point parents will then begin receiving notification of what the plan means to their kids and their schools.
“August 26 might see a bit late but you also have to remember that we have one of the latest school resumption dates we’ve ever had as well, that being September 8,” Baxter said.
She said the ministry expectation is that all healthy students will return to class unless they face health immunity challenges or other unique circumstances that prevent them from returning to class.
Unlike in June, when parents were given a virtual home learning option in response to the pandemic, that same option won’t be as readily available come the fall.
“We have home school and distance learning programs in place normally that parents can opt-out for, but teachers will have classes to teach so they won’t be able to offer (virtual) instruction to students at home like was done in June. We don’t have the staff to do that,” she said.
“We’ll see what happens but if we have a huge number of parents not wanting to send their kids back to class, then we as school boards will have to turn back to the government and say, ‘Okay, so how can you help us deal with this.’
“There is a general agreement I think that our kids are better off going to school…so our main message is we are trying to put together a plan that meets the safety needs of our students, families and our staff.”
As well, the international student program, an important revenue generator for the school district, could see enrolment decline in the fall.
“It’s a huge issue for us, whether some international students will be allowed in or not and facing a 14-day quarantine upon their arrival. They could arrive 14 days earlier than normal to deal with the quarantine issue, but we need to talk about how all this will work,” Baxter said.
“We may end up not getting as many international students as we planned which unfortunately would affect our budget.”
The province school safety measure initiatives already announced have included students being assembled in learning group cohorts of up to 60 students in elementary and middle schools, and 120 students at the high school level.
Many parents across the province have expressed concern about this measure, saying it runs in contradiction to public health advice issued so far. Social distancing for students in classrooms has become another common concern.
Other schools’ public health control measures include encouraging students and staff to stay home when sick; practice hand hygiene protocols; for students to not share food, drinks or personal items, not to touch their face and to cover their coughs; physical distancing; and cleaning and disinfection initiatives.
Baxter said the education ministry has announced $44.6 million in available funding for custodial staff support, handwashing stations, cleaning supplies, reusable masks and added technology.
“Masks will be supplied to all staff and students who want them for free,” she said.
For school bus transportation, Baxter added students in Grade 4 and above will be required to wear masks while other safety protocols must be followed by the school district: Clean and disinfect high touch areas at the start of a shift and after drop-offs are completed; encourage private vehicle use where possible to decrease bus passenger density; and have students sit in their own seat wherever possible (students from the same household can share seats if space is limited).