For the first time since March 17, parents dropped off their children at schools across Vancouver Island Monday morning as the province continues to re-open following the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sharon Larade was one, as her son joined his Grade 4 classmates at Kelset elementary school in North Saanich.
Larade told the VI Free Daily she was glad to see her son back in school for many reasons. Like so many parents, she suddenly found herself being a substitute teacher for her child, a less than ideal situation, while also trying to balance professional obligations.
“It is challenging to be at home with your child when you can’t be their teacher,” she said. While parents like Larade received teaching material and resources, the situation was just not tenable.
Overall, Larade is “cautiously optimistic” about her son’s return to school because of the measures that School District 63 (Saanich) has taken. They included revamped classrooms to reduce contact among students, hygiene measures and reduced capacity. Larade’s son, like all Kindergarten students in the district, will attend classes twice a week with students in middle schools and high schools returning to their classrooms just once a week — if they choose, as the partial return to in-class instruction remains voluntary.
Larade’s son will receive six days of in-class instruction between now and June 26, the official end of the school year, if he maximizes his attendance.
This raises the question of whether the partial re-opening is worth the effort with summer holidays just around the corner.
“I had similar concerns that it was too short of a period of time, but I think the social impacts [of the lockdown] have been huge,” Larade said. “Kids haven’t seen each other and they need to hang out. I think it is important that they get back and they have, even for a short period time, some familiar structure and that opportunity to spend time with their peer group.”
This aspect was apparent at Deep Cove elementary. While attendance appeared sparse, arriving students greeted familiar faces with shrieks of delight after not having seen them for weeks, even months. While authorities had organized measures to keep teachers and students connected by way of online learning, including virtual show-and-tells, it was apparent that some students fought hard against the urge of showing their appreciation by hugging their teachers after having patiently lined up outside their classrooms.
Dave Eberwein, the School District 63’s superintendent of schools and chief executive officer, witnessed this enthusiasm while visiting a school early Monday morning.
“I know that many students have been missing their school and this is an opportunity to engage with their teachers and other staff in the building,” he said. “I think this is a great way to finish off the school year by having some face to face instruction with students who are able to return at this time. While it is a relatively short time period, it does help to finish off the year in a positive way for the students who are returning.”
The feelings were similar in School District 85 (North Island) at the opposite end of the Island.
Five students returned to Alert Bay Elementary. The school will be open Mondays and Tuesdays, and continuing with online learning at the same time.
“It feels wonderful to have kids in the building,” principal Jen Turner said. “The rest of the families (of 40 students) have chosen to continue with online and paper package learning, and we are supporting them in that.”
Turner said the district was well prepared, setting out protocols and communicating a safety plan to teachers and staff. The Cormorant Island community, just off the east coast of Vancouver Island, recently dealt with an outbreak of COVID-19. Thirty people were sick and one passed away, but there have been no new cases of the coronavirus disease since April 30.
Farther north, staff at Port Hardy’s Eagle View Elementary School have hung six-foot paper eagles around the school as visual cues for students. First Nations cultural support worker, Beatrice Wadhams expects a difficult learning curve for the younger ones.
“It’s tough on the kids, because the kids don’t know how to keep distance. They see us and want to run up for a hug, and we have to say no,” she said. They’ve arranged desks as barriers between students, and will limit the number of students per room.
Approximately 800 students in School District 69 (Qualicum) returned to class this week.
Keven Elder, superintendent of schools for the district, said the district has figured out a schedule where younger students are in class for two days a week, while older ones attend for a day.
There are also approximately 100 students who are spending more time at school because they’re children of essential service workers. There are also many students who will not return to school for now.
Younger children are going to have minimal contact with each other and older students will be expected to physically distance where possible. At the secondary school level, students are using an online booking system to make appointments with specific teachers to get help.
“In terms of support for remote or home-based learning, teachers are scheduled during the week in ways that allow them time to continue reaching out to families that have chosen not to have their children return at this time,” said Elder. “That outreach is happening from schools rather than from home as teachers are needed on-site to be supports for on-site children should that need arise.
Eberwein said the district did not have any attendance figures yet Monday morning, but 50 to 65 per cent of local parents had previously told the district that they would send their children back to school. He added that the district will have a better sense of numbers as this phase unfolds.
The partial reopening of schools across the district as the province starts to shed measures designed to fight the COVID-19 pandemic mirrors developments elsewhere in British Columbia and the western world, but also adds to the uniqueness of the current school year in the district, for it included a lengthy labour disruption in the fall of 2019.
Eberwein called the school year so far “extraordinary” in praising all parts of the learning community for their creativity in dealing with unusual circumstances.
“It speaks to the values that we put in our district to the relationships that we have and the cooperation and collaboration that we exhibit,” he said. “I am extremely proud with what we have done this year and from where we have come. I think the 2019-2020 school year will be one that most people will remember for a long time.”
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— with files from Zoe Ducklow and Cloe Logan
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