School District 27 Supt. Chris van der Mark. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)

School District 27 Supt. Chris van der Mark. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)

COVID-19 takes bite out of SD27 enrolment

Fewer students at schools, but homeschooling up

The Cariboo-Chilcotin School District is seeing fewer students this fall as more pursue alternative education options such as homeschooling due to COVID-19.

Enrolment numbers are down about 100 students, with an anticipated decrease in funding of about $1.7 million to $2.2 million, according to figures released at the SD27’s Board committee meeting Oct. 13-14. Despite the drop in students, however, school officials say they will not have to cut programs or positions because they have a significant surplus of funds left over from school closures in the spring when they didn’t have to run buses and incur other expenses.

If they hadn’t accounted for the loss of student revenue, SD27 Supt. Chris van der Mark said this would have been a tough year for the district.

“I think we planned fairly well for this possibility and it’s not the best way to use that surplus, but it was a surplus generated from the situation and its a surplus that’s going to be used to alleviate the situation, so that’s probably fairly appropriate,” van der Mark said.

The decreasing enrolment is blamed partly on a shift among students to do more learning at home. Curt Levens, principal of SD27’s Graduate Routes Other Ways (GROW) Distance Learning and Skyline Alternate School, said more students than ever have enrolled in those programs this year.

More than 300 learners are involved in their program throughout SD27 this year with the majority of those from K-9 – and more are waiting to join when spots become available. Typically, only 70 to 90 students make use of the program every year, Levens said. High school is measured in the number of registered courses, with somewhere between 250 to 300 different courses registered through them.

“This year because we have so much interest in our program, just due to COVID, we’ve been busier than we’ve ever been. It’s been a real challenge to meet all the needs of our students so we’re still working on hopefully getting additional staffing so we can support more students,” Levens said.

Teachers provide curriculum and support for students and parents who choose, or need to, learn independently at home. The aims is to ensure learning standards are being met, Levens said. Teacher check-ins are conducted virtually, with teachers answering questions via email, phone or Zoom.

“As students become older it definitely becomes more independent because a lot of our courses are online, totally different from a classroom where teachers are delivering information. A lot of technology and support from the parents and teachers as well,” Levens said.

While it’s taken a while to get the new batch of students up and running, Levens said they have received positive feedback.

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“The big pro is that it can be more self-paced which could be a pro or a con. For motivated students, they can move through things really quickly and if they want to spend all day working on math, they can,” Leven said. “Students can do their school work late at night or in the morning, they can still help out around the home, it’s more flexible for sure.”

Meanwhile, van der Mark said regular classes are getting back on track, although there have been a few issues at the high school level as students and teachers switch from their usual semester system to a more intense quarter semester system. He said they’ll have to monitor students closely to ensure they’re not falling behind.

The other challenge has been the more mobile nature of high school students who spend their breaks and lunches away from their schools. The cohort structure is designed around close contact, van der Mark said, and if there is an outbreak it should still be closely limited within the group and be traceable.

“We’re actually pretty impressed with how compliant the high school students have been. I remember being a teenager and I wasn’t always the most compliant, so I totally appreciate the effort of the kids in that group,” van der Mark said.

“COVID is here to stay. It’s just something we’re going to have to change some ways of being and doing. We’re going to have to function with it, we can’t just hunker down and wait for COVID to be done because it’s not going to be gone,” van der Mark said. “We’ll do better through this if we all work together.”

Interior Health has not cited any possible virus exposure at any SD27 schools yet.

“I hope it helps people breathe a little bit and understand some of the benefits of being rural,” he said. “Less people, more space, I think that’s certainly helpful at this time.”

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