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  • Tracy Sherlock

Educators consider what reopening schools might look like

Updated: May 14, 2020

At Vancouver Technical Secondary a chalk mural reminds students to practise physical distancing, to stay safe and to stay home.  (VSB Photo)

Vancouver school leaders are starting to consider what reopening schools might look like, whether it happens later this spring or in September.

They’ve already expanded childcare to include the children of tier two essential workers, still at the same three sites: Lord Roberts, Elsie Roy and Lord Nelson. Healthcare workers and first responders are in tier one, while tier two essential workers are all other workers deemed “essential” by the province. In all, about 100 students are part of this program.

The district is getting ready to provide care for lifeskills students – those with exceptionally high learning needs – at a secondary school starting next week.

All of this will inform how an eventual reopening for all students will look.

“We are thinking about how it might work,” Vancouver School Board superintendent Suzanne Hoffman said in an interview. “Whether the comeback happens in May or September, the plans we are starting to think through will apply. You know, which grade, how much per week.”

B.C. has not begun the process of reopening after schools were shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March, but Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s provincial health officer, has said options are being explored.

“I absolutely think we will have children back in school this year, but it may be modified,” Henry said. She said there may be different strategies in different areas and that there will be a special focus on children who are most disadvantaged to make sure they don't fall further behind.

The most important thing is that schools are truly safe places for students, staff and community members, Hoffman said. In planning for the initial, small reopening, it became clear there was a fair bit of stress and anxiety for staff and families.

The two main concerns so far are how to properly do physical distancing and the use of personal protective equipment, Hoffman said. Some of those concerns have come to light in consideration of the most vulnerable students.

“If you’re taking care of a child that needs toileting, what are the health and safety protocols during covid time, that we need to have in place to keep staff safe, as well as students,” Hoffman said.

The plan is to move gradually.

“We are looking to expand, but we’re not saying where or when, because we want to build on what we are doing in the one location first before we carry on,” Hoffman said. “Truthfully, it has taken longer than we thought and I think we are all okay with that.”

Another concern is making sure secondary students pass their courses and can graduate on time.

“I was talking with one of our secondary principals this week, and he indicated that every Friday they discuss which students are vulnerable, asking what are we doing, have we been in touch with them,” Hoffman said. “They’re being very thoughtful and methodical.”

VSB staff are checking in on students with mental health challenges and continues to provide food to 2,000 children. About 700 of those families chose to receive groceries, rather than hot daily meals, Hoffman said.

There is one required graduation math assessment that must be completed prior to graduation. Hoffman says if the province continues to require it, VSB will bring students in to write it.

So far, no employee group has been laid off from Vancouver Schools, Hoffman said.

“The union has made a commitment with some of our CUPE staff that they would be paid through to the end of April, which is coming up quickly,” Hoffman said. “We are waiting for any further information or direction from the Ministry of Education. We haven’t heard anything yet and there is no indication that that is changing.”

The school board will hold a virtual, live-streamed meeting on Monday and committee meetings will resume in May, Hoffman said.

“We’re doing the budget for next year and obviously trying to mitigate any impact.”

Meanwhile, VSB is looking at other jurisdictions around the world to see how their school reopenings go, Hoffman said. But students, parents and staff will have to wait a little longer for details on what a reopening in B.C. will look like, or when it might happen.

“The message right now is stay tuned, we are thinking about it, and it will be safety first, but if there are opportunities and a safe way to reengage our students, of course, that’s something that as an educational organization we would 100-per-cent want to do.”

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