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Small number of students turn up for classes at Greater Victoria schools this week

Limited start to classes this week, all students invited back next Monday
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Elementary schools in the Greater Victoria School District — home to about 20,000 students — had students attending in cohorts ranging from 20 to 50, said interim superintendent Deb Whitten. TIMES COLONIST

Heather Macdonald is thankful she works from home, because it means she can be with her two girls during their extra week off school amid rising COVID-19 cases.

Classes were supposed to start Tuesday but are now to set to begin next Monday to give schools time to work on enhanced safety plans.

Macdonald, president of the Margaret Jenkins Elementary School Parent Advisory Council, has a daughter in Grade 6 at Central Middle School and one in Grade 3 at Margaret Jenkins. She said Tuesday that both are managing to keep themselves busy. “One just went for a walk with a friend and they’re sitting outside playing a board game right now.”

Macdonald has playdates scheduled for the girls, as well, so the parents involved can share child-care duties.

She said the week-long delay in returning to school after the Christmas holiday is challenging for some parents, including those whose jobs aren’t home-based.

“I know some parents are grateful that it’s just a short week,” Macdonald said. “That’s what I’m hearing from a few people.”

Some students were still able to attend school Tuesday, including those with parents in health care and other essential services, and students with special needs. Margaret Jenkins is among 28 elementary schools in the Greater Victoria School District — home to about 20,000 students — that had students attending in cohorts ranging from 20 to 50, said interim superintendent Deb Whitten.

She said elementary schools saw more students attending than middle or high schools, although no overall numbers were immediately available.

Whitten said there is no instruction for students attending this week. “There’s programming, obviously, but there’s no instruction taking place this week.”

The programming can include basic exercises in general numeracy and literacy, she said.

Ravi Parmar, chairman of the Sooke School Board, which oversees almost 12,000 students, said about 275 students were at schools in the district on Tuesday. The largest attendance was 29 students at David Cameron Elementary School, with the numbers considerably lower at sites like Dunsmuir Middle School with nine and Belmont Secondary School at three.

Parmar said the extra week will give the district time to assess the impact of the rapidly spreading Omicron variant on its workforce, everyone from teachers to bus drivers and custodians.

“There’s a lot of people contracting COVID,” he said. “This new variant is spreading very quickly and so we need to get a good understanding of what our work force is right now.”

Parmar said the district is flexible in assessing whether students can attend school this week.

“The key piece is we know a lot of families who simply have to go to work because they are living paycheque to paycheque,” he said. “So I would say to any family that needs support from their school or are having trouble with child care, please reach out to your local principal and your local school and we’ll do everything in our power to help you out.”

When school resumes, there will be extra emphasis on daily health checks for COVID-19 symptoms, he said. “If you’re not feeling well, please don’t come to school.”

Saanich School District superintendent Dave Eberwein said about 200 students in the district of 8,000 attended school Tuesday.

He said most parents have been understanding about the delayed school start. “We’ve had a very supportive parent community in Saanich.”

Students returning to Saanich district schools this week include those with “complex learning needs” who require in-school support, he said. Parents who are essential workers — primarily in the health field — are invited to call their principals to arrange for their children to attend.

Saanich Teachers’ Association president Michael MacEwan said teachers have been looking at the potential that some schools might have to shut due to a COVID-related lack of staff.

“If COVID takes the school to the point where there isn’t enough staff to run the school, there isn’t enough staff to supervise the kids much less educate the kids, then there needs to be some contingency plans.”

A statement from the Greater Victoria School District says it plans to take additional steps such as holding virtual staff meetings and limiting visitors to schools.

Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association president Winona Waldron said her approximately 2,000 members will be busy this week getting schools ready for students, and also considering the possibility of a return to online learning.

Waldron said the vast majority of teachers in her association, up to 97 per cent, are vaccinated and most of them will likely be able to get their booster shots this month.

jbell@timescolonist.com