There have been lots of questions concerning the restart of schools in the Comox Valley for the last month of the year.
At the most recent board meeting, superintendent Tom Demeo told trustees the majority of time for senior staff of late has been to tackle some of these questions for the next stage of re-opening in June. Schools have been closed to most students in recent months due to restrictions over COVID-19.
At the May 26 meeting, Demeo presented a video from the district put together as a message about returning to schools. Interviewed were Demeo, teachers’ association president Sherry Dittrick and CUPE president Denise Bullock. It covers safety procedures for getting on buses, seating arrangements, alternate transportation arrangements, custodial work to enhance cleaning in schools, protocols for entering the schools, hand-washing, distancing measures and maximum class sizes.
For the operations side, director of operations Ian Heselgrave summed up some of the work in recent months starting with the establishment of protocols for health and safety – for example, physical changes like adding sneeze guards and signs, along with procedural changes especially for staff.
“We are now into intense cleaning protocols,” he said. “That means a lot of extra touch-point cleaning and high-traffic areas.”
Day custodians have been added to every elementary school and two will work in every secondary school.
“We’ve really had to kind of modify our practices,” he said.
The district has also faced a challenge keeping up with supplies like hand sanitizer and cleaning equipment, even having to order some items through Amazon.
For busing, Heselgrave touched on some of the matters from the video such as changes to seating on the bus in terms of numbers as well as proximity to the driver and other students.
“We’re now at sort of half capacity,” he said. “We’re having to manage this process very carefully.”
He also said they have contacted every special needs student regarding transportation.
As far as in-class matters, Allan Douglas, director of instruction for kindergarten through Grade 7, outlined plans for younger students.
“The very first thing we did was survey our parents,” he said.
Douglas said the choice for students to return in person is up to families, but the district has hoped to get as many students back into schools as who wish to come. There are, of course, capacity changes. The “rule of half” for the meantime means schoolrooms in elementary can only be at half-capacity. To prepare, the district had to find out how many students were planning on returning for June, including how many are children of essential service workers working away from their homes. They also had to figure out how many students are part of the district’s vulnerable student population.
Once the district had the numbers, they determined which days students should go to their schools. Students through Grade 5 come for two days a week, while those in grades 6 and 7 only come one day a week. Douglas also said plans have come together as far as providing before- and after-school care for children.
Staff and trustees both expressed frustration with the Ministry of Education’s unwillingness to allow the district to include students in grades 6 and 7 as part of the plan for other elementary grades. Instead, the district had to devise separate guidelines.
Trustee Sheila McDonnell asked how even the spread was by school in terms of numbers wanting to return in June. Assistant superintendent Geoff Manning said staff was surprised to find the numbers worked out more evenly than expected. A couple schools, notably Ecole Puntledge Park Elementary and Ecole Robb Road Elementary, had higher numbers, possibly because of the schools’ language acquisition programs and wish to have a bit more in-class instructional time.
Manning also covered the situation for grades 8 to 12, saying it was a bit different from elementary grades, specifically in that rather than the “rule of half,” the district is following social distancing guidelines.
Another difference is online learning, which he explained has worked well for secondary schools.
“The secondary students have really been engulfed in online learning,” he said.
However, Manning said it hasn’t worked as well for alternate programs, so the district is looking at strategies to respond.
All students will have the chance to come in for face-to-face instruction for one day a week, but Manning estimates online instruction will make up about 80 per cent of the students’ remaining instructional time.