The new school year started without a major hitch in the 100 Mile House-area this week, but educators warn parents and students not to become complacent during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Students in School District 27, which includes the 100 Mile area, along with David Stoddart School in Clinton, made a full return to school Monday, after orientations last week to get them up to speed on the new safety rules.
Murray Helmer, president for the Cariboo Chilcotin Teachers’ Association, said he was pleasantly surprised that the year started off so smoothly after six months off but reminded people we’re still in a pandemic.
“Don’t let your guard down,” he said. “I know we’re in a safe community and Interior Health as a region in general has been safe, but (don’t) get complacent.”
At 100 Mile Elementary Tuesday, most students were settling into their cohorts and school was going well, vice-principal Shawn Nelson said. He credited the smooth start to a lot of pre-planning and re-working their plan at the school to prepare for the students’ full-time return.
“Teachers come here prepared and they’re a great team to work with,” said Nelson, who has been vice-principal for six years. “They’re doing a great job following the plan and getting clarification when they need it and moving ahead together to make this as safe and workable as we can.”
SD27 Supt. Chris van der Mark said the main focus as staff and students return to school is making sure everyone abides by the health and safety guidelines laid out by the district and the province. This includes washing their hands regularly and staying physically distant. Recess times and other breaks will be staggered at schools, while students in different cohorts will enter school through designated doors and have routines for washroom visits.
Van der Mark said the district’s administration has done a lot of planning since early August to make sure cleanliness is maintained by the support staff, that teachers are ready to educate and that the cohort system works as intended.
The learning cohorts limit student interactions to 50 to 60 students at the elementary level and up to 120 at the secondary level. Changes have also been made to the high school timetable so students are only in two hours-and-45-minute classes a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The secondary students will get two new classes every quarter, a switch from the previous semester system.
Van der Mark noted there will be cross-cohort mixing both before and after school, at community events and sports. This model exists, he said, to narrow down the amount of contact tracing that will be required if somebody tests positive for COVID-19. Schools should still be the safest place to be, he said, due to the controlled environment, the new protocols and the cleanliness.
“Every school I’ve been in the staff are just over the moon to see the students back and I can’t stress enough how proud I am of the staff and the community for coming together to do this in a safe and meaningful way,” he said.
However, some parents and teachers have expressed concerns that more could be done. While most feel SD27 is meeting all safety guidelines, some argue they could use more sanitizer stations in classrooms and others are concerned about students not physically distancing. At Peter Skene Ogden Secondary School, for example, there are six sanitation stations, which roughly equals one station per 100 people at the school.
And while masks are required for all students riding a bus to school, they only have to be worn at the high school and middle school level in common areas. At the elementary level, masks are not required at all although van der Mark said “If parents want their child (to wear a mask) they certainly can.”
“Obviously there will be things that pop up but I’m pretty confident we’ll be able to roll with whatever comes,” van der Mark added. “I had the chance myself to pop around to a couple of schools (on Friday) and I was really impressed with how calm things felt. You see kids coming and going, and when they come in, they’re putting on their mask and going to the sanitizer station to clean their hands without a whole bunch of issues or direction.”
Helmer urged parents to a backup plan.
“I think it’s really important that if anybody is not well, they’re not coming into the building. If students wake up in the morning feeling sick they should be kept home,” he said. “Parents need to establish some sort of backup plan if they’re working parents or if they wake up with a sick child. Don’t send that child to school.”
Meanwhile, Nelson said no issues have cropped up so far at 100 Mile House Elementary as staff are working to care for their students. He wanted to let parents know the school has a flexible plan and is following the protocols laid out by both the health and education ministries.
He said students seemed to be as excited as he was to be back, which he views as “a good situation,” but added if parents are concerned, they should take their time and send their children back to school when they’re ready.
“I’m very positive about (the school year). I’m not concerned about being at school,” Nelson said. “We have a great plan, a great size of the field to get kids outside and a great staff working hard, and the principal is an awesome principal moving us right along.”