Students will be returning to class next month, but it won’t be the usual September start-up.
At a board meeting for Comox Valley Schools held via Zoom on Thursday night, senior staff presented the plan for heading back to class in light of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.
Though not part of the actual restart plans, one of the biggest concerns trustees and staff have heard is whether parents, considering whether to keep their children out of school using some other option like distance education, could risk losing their enrolment spot at the same school for the following year.
“There is a lot of mixed emotions and anxieties around returning for many families,” superintendent Tom Demeo said at the Aug. 20 meeting.
Staff’s recommendation was to allow families to reserve spaces, though they expect one challenge in light of this will be to accommodate new students to the district. As far as the plans themselves, senior staff members outlined how school will resume in September.
Demeo stressed the plan is a “high-level” one. As far as the details themselves, the schools have to submit their own plans. These will be posted online for Wednesday, Aug. 26.
The board approved a motion for the staff plan and the provision to reserve spaces at neighbourhood schools.
Trustee Sheila McDonnell said while she supported the staff plan, she asked for more discussion on what the board could do to communicate with the Ministry of Education about continuing more of a blended model for school rather than the complete back-to-school mandate districts now face.
“I think we were all expecting something more based on the blended model,” she said. “I’m at a bit of a loss.”
One of the biggest changes will be how classes take place, notably in cohorts will students being grouped in numbers no larger than 60 for elementary and 120 for secondary. These cohorts will consist of all the students who will study, play and break together.
“They’re grade-appropriate, age-appropriate,” director of instruction for elementary schools Allan Douglas told the board. “It’s your cohort for … the whole day.”
He encouraged parents with concerns about sending students back to contact their school principal.
“We don’t want to force-fit people, we want to make it a very positive experience coming back to school,” he said.
The cohort model also means changes to the layout of the school grounds, with cohorts placed in zones in areas such as the playgrounds, though cohorts will be rotated to allow different kids to use different play spaces. There are also protocols around hand sanitizing and other measures for common areas such as libraries, computer labs, music rooms and gymnasiums.
Douglas said at present all the schools are working on their individual plans in time to post them online for Aug. 26.
“We feel very confident that we’re ready to start,” he said.
The situation for secondary students is more complicated because students traditionally move through four classes each semester. Instead of four blocks a semester over two semesters, the students will go to two blocks spread into quarters through the year. The idea is to reduce the number of contacts between students.
“Every single school district on the Island is running this same system, with the exception of one district,” assistant superintendent Geoff Manning said, adding the other district is going down to a single course block at one time that will last for a shorter period of the year.
One advantage with the new quarterly system, Manning said, will be that it will allow for an easy transition at whatever point the district goes back to its regular semester model. However, the change could mean fewer course options for some students.
Director of student services Esther Shatz highlighted the district already has processes and protocols in place for students with diverse learning needs. She spoke about professional development opportunities for staff to help with issues around returning to school or wearing masks, such as anxiety and fear. There will be training for educational assistants, as well as additional protocols for those EAs who provide close, personal care for students.
Director of operations Ian Heselgrave discussed measures to ensure safety on buses and in schools, which staff have been preparing for in recent months.
“We’ve had a busy summer,” he said.
These include adding hand-washing stations, replacing drinking fountains with bottle-filling stations, improving ventilation systems and making regular filter changes, staggering seating for distancing on buses or using masks where necessary in light of the larger numbers coming back in September when compared with the partial return to class in June.
“When we did the busing in June, there really weren’t very many kids going to school,” he said.
Health and Safety
Underlying these specific areas are the general health and safety principles, which director of health and safety Paul Berry outlined at the outset of the meeting, saying the district already had a pandemic plan in place. He covered several principles for health and safety, such as cleaning measures, the cohort model, isolation measures if someone becomes sick and the need to promote physical distancing. He pointed out to board members that students under 19 on the Island have not been affected by the pandemic and that schools are low-risk environments, though the district needs to take strong measures to keep sites safe.
“We have the duty to get this right for everyone,” he said. “We don’t want to go backwards.”