Back to school plans revised
Plans for how the 2020-21 school year will start in September continue to evolve as district administrators and staff work to adapt to provincial orders for a full return to in-class learning.
An announcement by Education Minister Rob Fleming last week that students will return to school two days after teachers do on Sept. 8 has produced some relief for educators. Teachers will now have at least a little time after returning from holiday to work out classroom arrangements and COVID safety protocols. Students will have Sept. 10 and 11 to get used to the new system.
“That’s great that we’ll be looking at an extra couple of days before the kids come back —the more time, the better,” said Ian Mitchell, president of the Gulf Islands Teachers’ Association.
Mitchell said the Ministry of Education will not require schools to make up for the lost instructional time, which is also helpful. However, he said there are many issues that need to be worked out, and details that are still unknown with the “learning pods” system established by the province. This will keep students in designated groups of 60 people for elementary and middle school grades and 120 for high school.
“There are so many moving parts, not the least of which is the upward trend [in cases],” said Gulf Islands School District superintendent Scott Benwell. “The province has announced there will be some flexibility in the first week for school staff and kids to train about the cohort approach. It won’t be a typical restart.”
School districts are required to submit their draft restart plans to the ministry by Aug. 21 for review. Finalized plans are to be made public by Aug. 26. Individual schools will then send out information about how things will work.
“As a parent, as a grandfather, I understand those timelines can be problematic for families, but those are the guidelines we are given. That’s provincially mandated,” Benwell said.
“We do believe that within these guidelines, our schools will be safe for students and staff,” he added. “There’s expert guidance from Public Health that tells us these guidelines will be safe.”
Gulf Islands Secondary School principal Lyall Ruehlen sent a notice to parents this week explaining the high school will start the 2020-21 school year by changing its timetable from a two-semester system to a quarterly system to help reduce movement within the school and interactions between different students and teachers. The first quarter will run Sept. 10 to Nov. 10 and the second quarter will be from Nov. 12 to Jan. 22. Students will be sorted into learning groups that take the same timetable as much as possible, and these will change with each quarter.
The provincial government also announced this week that staff, middle school students and high school students will be required to wear masks in high traffic areas such as school buses and hallways, although not in the classroom.
Benwell said one thing that isn’t possible so far is a return to the remote learning option that B.C. schools employed in the spring, since the province has required teachers to be in class. Fleming has suggested some families might make use of distributed learning centres if they don’t feel comfortable sending their children back into the classroom. However, SD64 does not have a distributed learning centre, so families who wanted to pursue distance learning would have to enroll in a different school district and these programs are already filling up.
“We never want to lose one of our students or families, so we empathize with that,” Benwell said. “We are playing with some very specific rules that are not of our making.”
Benwell reported he has been advocating with the ministry to make a distance learning option available to those families that need it.
The BC Teachers’ Federation asked for further amendments to the back to school plan on Wednesday. They want to see masks for all students ages 10 and up and not just in high traffic areas. They have additionally called for an online learning option for all students who are immunocompromised or have a person in their family who is, smaller class sizes to make physical distancing possible, funding for upgrades to HVAC systems and accommodation for teachers who are medically compromised.