Cariboo Memorial Hospital sits just behind School District 27’s Lake City Secondary School in Williams Lake. On Monday (March 30), hundreds of teachers will be headed back to work without students to plan next steps in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Angie Mindus photo - Williams Lake Tribune)

Back to school: District 27 workforce to provide critical support during COVID-19 pandemic

Superintendent Chris van der Mark said he hopes the district can be a source of calm for communities

As one of the largest employers in the region, School District 27 will be working to harness and mobilize that energy next week to help in B.C.’s fight against COVID-19.

“This is our generation’s chance to do something really good in a difficult, but not the most difficult, situation we’ve ever had happen,” Chris van der Mark said March 25, as he prepared for teachers and support staff to head back to work Monday, March 30 after a two-week spring break.

“It’s really important for us to be a bit of a source of calm and reason and stability and something to be counted on. We need things to count on and we’re going to try to do that.”

Van der Mark said it has been very busy at the district office in Williams Lake since B.C. Education Minister Rob Fleming announced March 17 the indefinite suspension of in-class instruction from K to Grade 12 throughout the province due to the pandemic.

Read More: B.C. to suspend K-12 schools indefinitely due to COVID-19

At that time, Fleming said teachers could be utilized to; assist with childcare of health care workers and other essential workers on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic, to reach out to vulnerable students and to offer continuity of learning for students.

“So from that point on we flipped our attention to what that will look like and how we are going to meet the request that has been set out before us,” van der Mark said, noting district office staff worked throughout the break and have a plan in place for next week when teachers arrive.

“We’ve been given four main goals to work on as a sector, obviously we have to look after the health and safety of our staff, our employees. We’ve been asked to provide support for frontline health care workers and essential workers in that they may need places for childcare, in order to make sure that those services exist, which is going to be critical for us. We have to support, find ways to support our vulnerable families in our community, so that is going to be a key challenge as well and then, of course we have to find some way to ensure continuity of learning.

“That’s our focus right now, making sure that our sector is able to provide those critical supports, so that’s the bigger picture … so that we all come through this.”

Van der Mark said the timing of the spring break in relation to the pandemic has been fortunate in that it has given them a chance to work on a plan, and he is also grateful for the ongoing communication with the Cariboo Chilcotin Teacher’s Association.

“Next week we are broadly expecting people to be at their sites and practise social distancing and (do) some planning.”

The district has already sent out a survey to parents and guardians which will help them gather information “who has what” in terms of technology. Teachers will follow that up by contacting each student and then develop learning continuity plans for those students.

“We are going to spend our time next week doing that and then we can figure out what the deliveries will look like and we can figure out what locations we’re going to use if and when we have to provide some kind of care to help those people who are on those frontlines in essential positions.”

Van der Mark concedes it has, and will continue to be, a challenge.

“We heard every morning our Prime Minister telling everyone to stay home, right? So it’s kind of hard to get people to reconcile, they want to stay home, but of course there are sectors where things have to happen and obviously our health professionals can’t just stay home,” he said. “There’s some things that we can do while adhering to the guidelines and principles set out by our health authorities.”

Van der Mark said he feels the school sites are large enough, with individual work spaces so that staff will be able to ensure they are keeping appropriate social distances while coming up with plans to meet the directives of the education minister.

“It’s hard for everyone to understand exactly what that’s going to look like, because hey, there’s a bunch of anxiety out there, a bunch of worry and I get that, so we are also hoping that our sector can help calm people down, can help provide and give some of that critical support so that we’re going to be able to make a more stable environment for our communities in this time,” he said.

Another important part of the plan will include working with community partners to ensure vulnerable children are identified and given the support they need.

“This is going to be a tough period for a lot of folks and it’s going to be really hard on some and we’re going to do our best to make that better.”

Van der Mark said part of that outreach will undoubtedly include a food program coordinated with other community partners.

“This is going to look different across the district – we’re just trying to align our services with other services to make sure were getting things to the right spots so we can be of the most assistance.”

Van der Mark said working in education is a calling, and it is a service industry.

“Certainly we have a critical role that we can support and help care for those in our community,” he said.

Read More: 67 more B.C. COVID-19 cases, two more deaths in Vancouver region

“Just as we are making sure we are supporting and caring for our community, we have to make sure we are supporting and caring for our workforce as best as we can. This is going to be something we will work through together.

“We need people to do the best they can … to take care of themselves, and I think more than ever, this is one where we need to take care of each other. There’s some people that need to do really, really, really critical work for us (during the COVID-19 pandemic) and we need to make sure we’ve doing our part so that they can do their part.”

According to the district website, SD 27 provides education to approximately 4,600 students in 22 schools in an area the size of New Brunswick. The distance from the most eastern school to the most western is over 500 kilometres.

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