As the Cariboo Chilcotin school district aims for a full return to school this fall, those involved in the school system are trying to figure out how it’s going to work under new COVID-19 rules.
School District 27 superintendent Chris Van Der Mark said management and staff along with representatives from the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) and Cariboo Chilcotin Teacher’s Association will work together in the coming weeks to make a plan that meets the Ministry of Education’s safety guidelines and objectives.
“Our first concern is going to be the health and safety of the kids and our staff,” Van Der Mark said.
The ministry recently announced a plan to keep students and staff in smaller groups, or cohorts, to keep students and their teachers largely separate from other groups to reduce the number of close in-person interactions. The cohorts, which will allow for contact tracing should COVID-19 become a problem, would see groups of 60 or smaller in the younger grades, and 120 or smaller in high school.
Van der Mark said elementary schools should look ‘fairly normal’ in the fall, but scheduling adjustments may be the key to success in the higher grades, where there are more classes to choose from. There are currently about 4,600 students in School District 27.
“Now it just becomes about making a really good plan for those secondary cohorts so we maintain that confidence that the health and safety piece has been taken care of,” he said.
“Whatever we do going forward we will work with our local unions, both our IUOE and our teacher’s union to make sure they are involved in helping what we develop so it has a good chance of success.”
In 100 Mile House, schools briefly reopened in June after closing in March but these were for only select students on select days. At the time, Peter Skene Ogden Secondary School principal Geoff Butcher told the Free Press that they were testing systems that would lay the groundwork for reopening in the 2020/2021 school year.
Murray Helmer, president of the Cariboo Chilcotin Teacher’s Association and an intermediate teacher at Mile 108 Elementary, said teachers are cautiously looking forward to returning to school. The association represents 320 teachers in the district.
“Each step of the way we looked at what we needed to do to ensure that we had safe situations for all the teachers and students in the buildings, that was the number one priority and from there how we could support learning to continue on in the best possible manner,” Helmer said.
Helmer said he believes there is less apprehension in SD27 because many teachers have already been working at schools, teaching students as they began to return to class. These initially included the children of front line workers, followed by those who needed additional support, or students returning to class on a part-time basis.
As cleanliness protocols are still being met and physical distancing is being followed, he said, students returning to school shouldn’t be a big issue. However, he questions how the new model will work for immuno-compromised teachers and students.
“It’s a work in progress, I know it’s almost six full weeks till we’re back in school and so much change in such a short time period in what we’re dealing with, but I think there should be some confidence in the fact there’s a provincial group making sure that all of those unknowns are at least addressed with a plan.”
Van der Mark said the COVID-19 situation is not ideal, but he believes in the work done so far by the Ministry of Health.
“[Dr.] Bonnie Henry’s advice has been outstanding and it’s the reason B.C. has emerged fairly well. If Bonnie Henry and her team thinks through these cohorts we can have all our kids back and provide for that level of health and safety then I will continue to defer to her and her team. They are the experts … it behooves us to be supportive of that health team that has gotten us so far.”
Parents can help prepare their children for school by reminding them of the importance of physical distancing and hand-washing.
“Hand-washing and hygiene remain one of the most important things,” he said. “That remains absolutely critical.”
Van der Mark said added the size of the Cariboo Chilcotin district is also a benefit.
“There are lots of things to be hopeful for,” he said. “We have a lot of small schools, so that’s going to be helpful for us.”