School resumes amid COVID-19 concerns, protocols

Rich Fleming arrived at South Park Elementary in James Bay on Thursday morning with seven-year-old daughter Eleanor and a few qualms, as public schools resumed classes amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I guess like for all parents, there is that underlying trepidation of COVID, and not knowing,” said Fleming, adding the Island’s relatively low number of COVID cases keeps him from being too worried.

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One thing is certain, however: Eleanor has been “super excited” about getting back to school, he said.

“That means as much to me as the risks, balancing that out — a kid’s desire or thirst for being back at school.”

Faye Mollberg, whose six-year-old daughter, Frankie, is entering Grade 1 at South Park, also said that while she is a bit nervous about the return to school, it’s balanced by her daughter’s excitement.

“It seems like the benefits outweigh the risks at this point for sending her.”

Mollberg, an essential-service worker, said school provides an opportunity for socializing, which is important for children.

On the other side of town, Victoria High School students were coping not just with new COVID rules, but a new building.

Vic High has relocated to the former S.J. Willis Education Centre for the next two years while its historic building undergoes a $79.7-million seismic upgrade and expansion.

Having to both switch campuses and deal with COVID is making things “extra weird,” said Grade 12 student Sam Ractliffe. “It’s kind of like we’re in a new school in a new time of schooling, as well, so it’s very confusing.”

He said his peers are “just starting to wrap our heads around it.”

Nonetheless, Ractliffe said he’s happy to return to school almost six months after most classes shut down in B.C. — except for a part-time return in June — because the personal connection helps him retain information better.

“With online schooling, I found I did not retain much to almost any information,” he said.

Ractliffe agrees with the safety measures, including a requirement that students wear a mask except when they’re sitting at their desks. Overall, the school is doing a good job at keeping students and staff safe, Ractliffe said.

“They’ve definitely done as much as they feasibly could,” he said. “I think it’s a nice middle ground that they’re trying to find.”

Fellow Grade 12 student Mikyla West also prefers being in a classroom, in part because it offers more structure.

“I struggled with online school last year, so I was definitely a little nervous to come back,” she said.

“I didn’t know what it was going to be like.”

She said is waiting to see what how cohorts will be organized — for secondary students, cohorts are groups of up to 120 people who spend much of their time together, including social time. For elementary and middle-school students, cohorts are 60 students.

West said she plans to keep her mask on a lot of the time, especially since COVID cases have been detected at some schools in Canada. “I’m just hoping as the school year goes on we won’t let ourselves slip.”

Vic High principal Aaron Parker said all of the school’s nearly 850 students attended Thursday, but only for an hour in two separate sessions. That will be repeated today, with a full schedule starting Monday, in which students do two classes at school for 10-week periods.

Saanich School District superintendent Dave Eberwein said the start of the 2020/2021 school year went well, with good reports coming from around the jurisdiction.

He said the purpose of the short schedules Thursday and today “is to reintroduce the kids to school, to point out some of the protocols around the buildings and to wish them well for the weekend.”

Sooke School District superintendent Scott Stinson said it was a similar story in his area, as he made the rounds at a number of schools.

“By and large, staff are happy, they’re feeling comfortable, kids are back in smaller groups.”

Secondary schools had Grades 9 and 10 in for the initial sessions, Stinson said.

It will be similar today as part of a “gradual transition” to a regular schedule, he said.

“Then full on starting Monday.”

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