Schools prepare for regular fall program

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Gulf Islands schools will resume full-time in-person schedules this September without being divided into learning groups or having a quarterly timetable, while a provincial mask requirement will be in effect for all teachers and students in grades 4 to 12.

Under back-to-school plans announced by the B.C. Ministry of Education, many activities that were curtailed last year can additionally resume.

“We are pleased to see that extra-curricular activities and sports will return to schools this year,” said Gulf Islands district superintendent Scott Benwell. “Not requiring schools to organize around cohorts and learning groups reduces the complexity of scheduling and promotes a broader social experience for learners. This greater freedom within schools will be supported by safety measures like the provincial mask mandate as well as immunization.”

The provincial government and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry say the more relaxed approach to COVID safety compared to the previous school year is supported by research into the past year’s situation. Also being taken into account is research by the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC), which found there was “a significant impact on students from remote learning, including interrupted learning, increased child stress, decreased connection, increased loneliness and mental and emotional health effects.”

The province is continuing to promote vaccination as the best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Health authorities will target students, teachers and school staff in vaccination campaigns over the coming weeks.

However, many parents and teachers are concerned that children who aren’t old enough to be vaccinated will be crowding into schools at a time when the highly infectious Delta variant is producing a spike in positive cases.

Deblekha Guin, who is a member of the School District 64 District Parent Advisory Committee (DPAC) executive, pointed out Mayne, Saturna, Galiano and Pender islands have a first-dose vaccination rate of 92 per cent for people ages 12 and up, while Salt Spring’s rate lags at 79 per cent.

“As students prepare to return to school next week my heart especially goes out to families with children under 12 who don’t have the option of being vaccinated,” Guin said. “We know the risk to younger populations has risen, and children in grades kindergarten to three don’t have the protection of either a mask mandate or vaccination. In light of this I trust that our district, and others, will make robust home-learning options available to those students, and other students with extenuating circumstances.”

DPAC representative Adria Kray said she would like to see a response that has an increased focus on the airborne nature of COVID and how it’s spread.

“I hope that the province and school district continue taking the appropriate public health precautions, including a mask mandate for all grades (including K-3), ensuring families are notified when there are exposures in real time, outdoor lunches while masks are removed, and CO2 monitoring to provide an indicator of the effectiveness of ventilation and filtration systems,” Kray said. 

Provincial guidelines for the fall 2020 restart saw SD64 introduce a “flexible return program” that offered online learning opportunities for families that did not feel ready to send students into physical schools. Two teachers provided part-time digital classrooms for elementary and middle school students who also spent time learning on their own at home. That program is not being offered this September, Benwell said.

“At this point SD64 will return to all instruction being face-to-face this year,” he said. “In rare circumstances and for medical reasons, temporary learning arrangements can be discussed with our school principals, but we will not have a remote or online option.”

Changes to B.C.‘s health and safety policies include the ability for health authorities to introduce additional measures specific to individual schools or school districts in instances where community transmission rates are higher.

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