Having students return to classes has been the best thing since the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered them in March, said Chris van der Mark, School District 27 superintendent.
“I think once kids started coming back into the building people felt better,” he said during a tailgate talk hosted June 11 by the Williams Lake Hiring Initiative. “There is a lot more laughter.”
Students are the heartbeat of the schools and they are what everyone is there for, he added.
“It is the students who are usually what fills the adults’ buckets in terms of our enjoyment of what we do.”
He’s heard lots of ‘wonderful’ stories and said they’ve got nine weeks of showing that the sites are safe and things are going to be OK.
As for what school will look like in September, he said he guessed it will be in what the education sector is calling phase three.
“The goal, for the fall in the conversations that I’ve been part of, is to be phase one and (in) school. That’s the goal, we’ll see what happens between now and then in order to pull that off.”
The Cariboo-Chilcotin is lucky in terms of geography and some of the smaller schools are looking like schools again because of the number of students.
There may be options in the fall where there are more regional approaches, which he said might make sense.
“We know there’s been no new [coronavirus] cases on Vancouver Island in the last month and we’ve been doing pretty good in the Interior and North as well. It’s tough to tell, but I would hope for this or better and to continue to increase the more kids we have at school.”
District staff like everyone else, have been adjusting to COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ve been adjusting to the new landscape that we’ve found ourselves in,” he said, noting the district has appreciated the work done by frontline workers to keep things going. “Some of their work has made our adjustment a bit doable.”
Part of the adjustment has been sifting through information to make sure people feel safe and taken care of and are able to do their jobs.
Employee groups have been very helpful and willing to be engaged, he added.
“We are a care industry and we have a board that’s pretty kid-focused and wants good service for kids and good service for families and in this landscape it’s even more important to keep doing that.”
Unique experiences have emerged such as modified shifts, food delivery and food provisions for families and communities that might need more.
Not many staff were laid off, because they were deployed and reallocated to different areas because work was different.
Some staff helped prepare food, did bus runs to different areas or helped with new cleaning regimes put in place due to the pandemic.
“We tried really hard to make work available so we didn’t have to lay people off.”
As students have returned in greater numbers, more staff have returned and there have been people at work since March 30.
When asked about retirement numbers, van der Mark said about 20 are retiring and there could be a few more.
The district has done well with recruitment and hiring at various levels of the organization, which is in its third round of ‘post and fill.’
He said the region is a great place to be. It is very affordable and there is lots to do outside.
“In a pandemic landscape, having a bit more space, and not being in a densely populated area might be attractive. We are having some challenges with specialties, like every other district in B.C., like French Immersion. That’s a problem everywhere — it’s a problem in Quebec.”
Van der Mark moved to Williams Lake a year ago and said he looks forward to seeing more of the region, doing more fishing and is open to any and all fishing tips.
“We have some gorgeous settings and amazing scenery. People have been super friendly and super welcoming.”