School districts prepare pandemic plans for September

With Wednesday’s announcement that most students will be able to return to class in September, school districts are in preparation mode, ensuring facilities are safe and well organized.

“Now that we have this guidance, the planning starts,” said Greater Victoria School Board chairwoman Jordan Watters.

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“There’s nothing in stone yet in terms of how we’re going to deliver. It’s just a very uncertain time.”

Education Minister Rob Fleming and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry outlined a back-to-school plan centred on cohorts, or learning groups, with about 60 in each group at elementary and middle school and up to 120 at secondary schools.

Interactions will be primarily within the groups.

Watters said several factors will be involved in determining what happens in the coming weeks.

“The shape of the building will have an impact, and how they’re set up with these learning cohorts,” she said.

“Obviously, there’s going to be similarities across the province and across the district, but there will be things unique school-by-school, as well.”

B.C. schools were closed for in-person instruction on March 17 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, reopening in June on a part-time basis — something Watters said was helpful. Schools in the district tried measures like one-way corridors and designating the use of various exterior doors to specific people.

“We did a lot of learning in June and we also got a lot of feedback from the community,” she said. “There’s lots of work to do, lots of planning to make sure that we’re welcoming students back into the safest environment possible.”

Saanich School District superintendent Dave Eberwein said clarification is still being sought on a few aspects of the provincial plan, like interaction among cohorts.

“I think we need a bit more conversation on what that might look like.”

Revised health and safety guidelines also need attention, Eberwein said.

Any alterations to classrooms will come about about over time, he said.

“It’s a little early to talk about what might be happening in terms of physical changes to classrooms,” Eberwein said. “The expectation is that all students are back in school, so what we need to take a look at is primarily how the school is being organized.”

He said he expects differences among elementary, middle and secondary schools.

“With regards to physical barriers like Plexiglas screens and things like that, depending on the size of the cohort and depending on what the specific needs are of the students, I think that will all evolve individually — for not only schools but probably classrooms, as well.”

Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association president Winona Waldron raised concern about the number of teachers available for the return to schools. She said many teachers did not go back to classes in June because of health concerns and other factors.

“There’s going to be issues around the amount of teachers, for sure.”

She said start-up measures for schools needs more time to come together. “When are we going to do all this planning?”

Waldron said she would like to see a delay in students’ return so that teachers, administrators and others can get into schools ahead of time and assess what is needed.

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