School District 27 aiming for full return to school in the fall, with the first concern being the health and safety of the students and staff, says superintendent. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)

School District 27 aiming for full return to school in the fall, with the first concern being the health and safety of the students and staff, says superintendent. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)

School District 27 aims for full return to school in September

There are 4,600 students in SD 27

School District 27 superintendent Chris Van Der Mark said, as per the guidelines set out by the Ministry of Education, the Cariboo Chilcotin school district is aiming for a full return to school in the fall.

“Our first concern is going to be the health and safety of the kids and our staff,” Van Der Mark said Friday, July 31, noting the announcement was “good news on a lot of fronts.”

Van Der Mark noted in the coming weeks district management and staff along with representation from the unions will be working together to make a plan that will meet the safety guidelines and objectives set forth by the ministry.

“There are lots of things to be hopeful for. We have a lot of small schools, so that’s going to be helpful for us.”

With the full return to school, the ministry announced the plan to keep students and staff in smaller groups, or cohorts, to allow for contact tracing should COVID-19 become a problem.

Those cohorts 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.

READ MORE: SD27 announces new hire for superintendent position

Adjustments to scheduling may be the key to success in the higher grades, where there are more classes to choose from.

“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.”

Van der Mark said the COVID-19 situation is not ideal, however, 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.”

There are currently about 4,600 students in School District 27.

Within SD27 Murray Helmer, the president of the Cariboo Chilcotin Teacher’s Association said that overall teachers in the district are cautiously looking forward to returning to school. Helmer has held the position for eight years and is himself an intermediate teacher at Mile 108 Elementary. He added that the association’s overall goal, in addition to representing the 320 teachers in the district, is to ensure the best possible outcome for their students.

“When we first realized COVID-19 was going to impact education, the superintendent of the district Chris van der Mark and myself worked closely to determine how best to accommodate (the situation) which we didn’t have a good handle on at the time,” Helmer said. “There were teachers who required medical accommodations because they were immunocompromised and couldn’t return to work, in our district we had most of our teachers return to work right after spring break.”

READ MORE: COVID-19 and how the City of Williams Lake and SD27 are responding to concerns

Even though they worked remotely with students online, Helmer said many teachers still worked from the school. As time went on students began to return to school, first the children of front line workers, later those who needed additional support and finally a return of all student to class on a part-time basis.

“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, adding that while there was apprehension from the teachers at first it changed to comfort as time went on.

Now as the new school year approaches, Helmer feels there are still a lot of questions that need to be answered. While the education minister has announced that most students will likely be returning to class, there is still a provincial committee working on the small details of how that will actually work.

He thinks that there is less apprehension in SD27 though because many of their teachers were working from school. So long as cleanliness protocols are still being met and physical distancing is being followed, students returning to school shouldn’t be as big of an issue, though how Immuno-compromised teachers and students not returning to school will fit into this model still needed to be addressed.

“It sounds like what the cohort plan will do is basically divide up a school into smaller schools basically, the students in a cohort would not be intermingling with students from another cohort, they would stay in their group of 60 kids,” Helmer said. “You’re basically looking at just segregating off some of the students from other students so their interaction are smaller.”

Time will tell if the cohort system will be effective, Helmer said, however so far he’s had a lot of confidence in the decisions of the provincial government and Dr Bonnie Henry. B.C.’s COVID-19 data is much better than other parts of the country and certainly the United States. He knows lots of the apprehension from parents and teachers comes from hearing the “horror stories” from other jurisdictions but said that B.C. has been very careful in monitoring what’s going on within it.

Helmer knows that teachers are looking forward to being with their students as for many it’s the reason they got into teaching. Face-to-face interactions are the most effective teaching method and he knows students also get a lot out of socializing with one another.

“It’s a work in progress, I know it’s almost six full weeks till we’re back in school and so much changes 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,” Helmer said.

School District No 27 (Cariboo-Chilcotin)