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  • Tracy Sherlock

Q&A with VSB leaders: How's back-to-school going?

Primary students at Vancouver's McKechnie elementary mark Orange Shirt Day while observing health and safety measures. They're within their learning groups, which are distanced, and wearing masks. (VSB photo)

Q: How have things been going with the school start up?

A: Hoffman: I think, all things considered, the return to school has gone quite well. There are certainly the full range of feelings for people within the school district. Some are very fearful and worried and quite stressed and there are others who are highly delighted to be back in school. It is being able as a system to manage everyone in a respectful way about how they’re feeling about where they find themselves and how best to support the students at this time.

Q: Vancouver decided to split secondary classes in half with 15 students attending in the morning and 15 in the afternoon, and with a second class online. Have I understood that correctly?

A: The two classes flip every two weeks, so the online class goes into school and vice versa. There is also one linear block, which allows more students to be in schools. We can invite Grade 8 students into the school, or English Language Learners can be there and it works for our alternate programs. We also tasked all of our secondary schools with creating equity spaces, so that if a young person needed to stay at school, there are places within our secondary schools that are physically distanced, where they can access wifi and technology. This is trying to address the issues of equity that happen in our school district.

Q: Is school looking very different for elementary students?

A: Nelson: By and large, it looks pretty much as it would have, but with enhanced health and safety protocols. The students still have a lunch break and recess breaks, but we’ve sometimes had to stagger those and hold them at different times. Classrooms are organized differently. Teachers have taken a lot of furniture out of classrooms that may have been there in the past to allow teachers to space desks out and provide increased spaces between students.

Q: How many families chose the transition program, where students can learn from home, but return to in-class later in the year?

A: Nelson: The first return-to-school date is October 13 and we anticipate from what we’re hearing from principals that there are a number of families who will be choosing to return at that date. As a starting point, it was roughly 20 or 21 per cent of families who chose this program. It varied somewhat by school, with some being higher and some being lower, but that was the average.

Q: When someone in a school tests positive for covid-19, what is the process?

A: Nelson: Coastal Health gets all the test results for every person who have been tested, positive or negative. They focus on the positive results, and then in the case of schools, they contact VSB. They may need information from the school or they may need to talk to individuals as part of the work they do. They do contact tracing and they follow up. They work very quickly to identify any and all individuals, be they staff or other students, who may have had an exposure and to let them know directly what they need to do. That really is their role as the health authority.

Q: Has there been any transmission in Vancouver Schools?

A: Nelson: That I know of, no. Hoffman: Not that we know of, no. I think that’s a Coastal Health question.

Q: Is there an entire class that has to isolate right now or anything like that?

A: Nelson: If there were an entire class, Coastal Health would notify the entire class and they give them the dates and the times. What we send out is a letter, once Coastal Health has done their work, to let our staff and our communities know that there has been a case and that anyone who needed a follow up has had that directly from Coastal Health.

Hoffman: We work incredibly closely with Coastal Health – they have been really responsive – and they provide us with the information we need to know to follow up on. That has gone really well. You know at first, as we’re all figuring out the roles, I would say there have been a couple of bumps, but it feels, as I watch and listen, more seamless now.

(Reporter’s note: I have followed up with Vancouver Coastal Health to ask about transmission in schools and will report their response if it’s noteworthy.)

Q: Moving on from that and onto learning. How will reporting work now in secondary schools?

A: Hoffman: There will be one mid-term report and one final report.

Q: That seems like quite a change from what happens normally.

A: Hoffman: Obviously it’s a transition for how teachers teach and how kids learn, but we have been working through it together collaboratively with the secondary teachers association.

Q: If a student fails a course in one quadmester, say Math 10, could they take it again in the next quadmester?

A: Hoffman: I guess in theory, if they had room in their time table, the quadmester system would probably enable that far better than it would in a linear model.

Q: For primary students, where the curriculum is largely play-based, are you concerned the students may be losing some of that?

A: Hoffman: A huge part of the work of our teachers, particularly in elementary, has been around the social-emotional well-being of the young people in our system. I think that has been a priority, to start, for some who haven’t been in school since March 13. That has been the focus, first and foremost, and I think teachers are doing a great job, throughout the schools and classes, in ensuring that our kids feel safe and comfortable to be back in school. I think the play-based part of it will evolve over time. Certainly for younger children, they’re just happy to have playmates running around outside on a field because that hasn’t happened a great deal lately.

Q: At the last school board meeting it was said that there are 252 fewer international students. How many are there in a normal year?

A: Hoffman: There are normally about 1,800.

Q: So that’s down about 14 per cent. How will that affect VSB schools? Will there be layoffs?

A: Hoffman: Certainly it’s a financial impact. We have committed to our teachers and our principals in secondary schools that we would not reduce staffing for this school year because staffing was already in place and because we have our learning cohorts and health and safety is the most important. We didn’t want to start cross-pollinating learning groups within the month of September. The quarter model does lend itself, if the country and the province is able to open up a little more, that, unlike in a linear model, in theory you could have students join at each quarter break.

Q: Are most students in schools wearing masks?

A: Hoffman: A principal sent me a photo today of students in their orange shirts and everyone of the children had a mask. We do have a board motion that strongly encourages the wearing of masks and that has been communicated to staff and schools. We are not getting out to our schools. It’s kind of sad in a way, but we’ve really limited our visiting because we don’t want to be another adult in the school, so we don’t have first-hand knowledge of that.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?

A: Hoffman: We are thankful for the extraordinary work that has taken place on the part of teachers, board staff, administrators in schools. I do think there was a real coming together to do all of the health and safety procedures that we need to do and then really get our students back in school and then start to really, really focus on the teaching and learning that needs to take place so that our students can be successful.

Nelson: In talking with principals, there was a lot of anxiety and apprehension generally and once kids got back and got through the first few days, that’s come down a lot. It really seems like schools are back – they look different, and there are different procedures and safety processes – but really we’re back focusing on teaching and learning and having kids back in our schools.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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