With school slated to start in just under three weeks on Sept. 10, some 100 Mile House parents still haven’t decided if they will send their children or keep them at home.
Jamie Hughes-Rywaczuk, the mother of two French Immersion students at 100 Mile Elementary School, said although she is fine with her daughters Sophie, 11, and Ava, 7, going back to school, she has several concerns she would like addressed – particularly around how schools will keep the students separate, even if they are in learning groups, or cohorts, with a maximum of 60 students per group.
According to Stage 2 of the province’s Revised Five Stage Framework for K-12 Education plan, students and teachers returning to school will be organized into learning groups that will only interact with members of their learning groups for the entire school term.
Elementary students will be in groups of 60 or less; those in Grades 9-12 will have their interactions limited to the 120 students within their group.
“Elementary schools can’t even control flu outbreaks, so how are they going to control a virus like this that’s so contagious?” Hughes-Rywaczuk asked. “Kids are going to touch each other, they’re going to touch each other’s stuff, there’s no way to prevent that.”
In a letter sent to the family and staff of School District 27 Supt. Chris van der Mark reiterated comments from Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer, who said COVID-19 data supports a full-time return to class for all students and that she is confident it is safe for both staff and students to return. A complete localized return to the school plan will be published on SD27’s website by Aug. 26.
“Our district recognizes that the announcement has raised many questions and that some of our families and staff are feeling anxious about some aspects of the plan,” van der Mark said. “Our return to in-class instruction last June proved to be safe for our staff and students and we will build on our safe practices while we continue to work toward safe solutions to the challenges bringing all our students back into schools may raise.”
But Melissa Cadsand, a mother of two elementary school-aged students who works as a contract child-sitter, is skeptical of the current plan.
Her daughter Chloe, 8, is “absolutely terrified” at the prospect of going back to school this year, Cadsand said.
Even teaching her to wash her hands and wear a mask isn’t enough to persuade her daughter to return to school. Her son Hunter, meanwhile, is turning five at the end of November and, due to COVID-19, Cadsand has decided to hold him back a year from starting kindergarten. She said she feels lucky to have the ability to keep him at home, as he is also afraid to go to school.
“We know we’re always going to have those parents who are going to send their kids to school sick and I believe the school should have a complete zero tolerance,” Cadsand said. “There should be a pre-screening for every child that comes into school for temperature, for a runny nose or a cough unless they have a note from the doctor saying they have allergies.”
In his letter, van der Mark maintains the nine schools within SD27 with 60 students or less will operate like normal with enhanced health and safety standards. If any events or classes take place outside of the learning group, masks and physical distancing will be strictly enforced.
He noted the Ministry of Education will provide funding to buy masks for older students to use, upon request. Busing students, meanwhile, will be conducted under revised safety guidelines, with masks mandatory for middle school and secondary school students.
“As we stressed in the spring, it is imperative that any staff or students who feel sick should stay home and not report to school,” van der Mark said. “Parents who work outside of the home may wish to consider securing an alternative caregiver for their child in the event they are sick and cannot attend school on any given day.”
He maintains the smaller cohorts will significantly reduce “the number of individual interactions while allowing most students to receive in-person learning in a close-to-normal school environment.”
Hughes-Rywaczuk worries children are being encouraged to return to school for economic reasons rather than for the actual wellbeing of the children or their education.
She added it feels a bit rushed and contradictory to start school as everyone is still being told to avoid large gatherings.
“I don’t understand how that’s going to work and I know it’s strictly for contact tracing but at the same time, SD27, from what I’ve heard, is not going to be cleaning the playground in between uses,” Hughes-Rywaczuk said, noting she has full faith in the teachers and feels really bad for them right now.
“It really irritates me how some parents don’t fully grasp what the job of a teacher is and that they have a really big job ahead of them,” she said.
Cadsand agreed, noting many elementary students will have siblings in other grades and they will naturally get together. She also raised concerns that limited after school groups and programs in 100 Mile House could lead to the mingling of learning groups outside the classroom.
“Then, of course, the heating system, they’re all linked so they’re going to have issues with that, it will be just one massive kerfuffle,” Cadsand said.
“I hope everybody does their best to stay safe and respect a zero-tolerance policy if the school does come out with one. It’s our best way to protect each other.”