Safety procedures and protocols are in place for a safe return to school for students and educators in the North Okanagan-Shuswap.
School District #83 released its back-to-school plans on Wednesday, Aug. 26, with the assurance from Superintendent Peter Jory that “staff have gone above and beyond to provide the safest, cleanest and best organized environment possible, and that work will continue throughout the school year.
Jory told the Observer the school district’s back to school plan was considered the “gold standard” by a provincial health and safety inspector.
“I think our health and safety team has done an amazing job, our schools are in great shape and I’m very confident that the learning environment will be safe for start up,” said Jory.
Jory said the school year will begin with a safety orientation for staff on Sept. 8 and 9, and for students on Sept. 10 and 11.
“That’s the key reason school was delayed for a few days,” said Jory. “We needed to get all of our employees back in the building so they could do their next stage of orientations given the new context… And then turn around on the 10th and 11th and use that information to orient the incoming students.”
Students returning to school will be organized into “cohorts” as per Stage 2 of the Ministry of Education’s Restart Plan. With this, students attending elementary and middle schools will be divided into cohorts or bubbles of 60, while secondary students will be limited to cohorts of 120 students. Jory explained this approach is intended to reduce the number of students gathering together at one time while simplifying contact tracing for Interior Health should the need arise.
“Within cohorts you can conduct business as usual – the real challenge is to keep those cohorts separate the best you can…,” said Jory.
Should there be an outbreak, Interior Health would take over.
“They may have students in a cohort stay home, they may demand that students and staff be tested before they return, but it gives them options that prevents us from having to just immediately close an entire school or school district down,” said Jory. “It will allow learning to continue if that outbreak is contained to one specific cohort.”
High schools with smaller student populations will be divided by learning groups. For Eagle River Secondary, Grades 8/9 will be in one group, and Grades 10 to 12 in another. For AL Fortune Secondary, it will be Grades 7/8, 9/10 and 11/12, while Pleasant Valley Secondary will be divided by individual grades. Within a learning group, minimized physical contact is required but physical distancing does not need to be maintained at all times.
Jory said the Salmon Arm Secondary Sullivan and Jackson campuses are a challenge with a different solution. He said Jackson students are going to be timetabled into cohorts by the principal. One result is that students may not be able to take the electives they want.
At Sullivan though, because almost all the courses are elective courses, said Jory, the school district is looking at an alternating day model.
To help keep cohorts separate, students and staff may be required to use separate entrances/exits, and break times and lunches will be staggered.
Sanitizer and PPE
Part of the student orientation will involve hygiene. Jory said sanitizer will be available in all schools. Non-medical face coverings will be required for staff and students in Grades 6 through 12 when in high-traffic areas where physical distancing cannot be maintained. Jory said there will be some support staff and teachers on call that will be with students but not part of a cohort. He said they’ll be required to practise strict safety protocols including physical distancing.
“So we’ll be using PPE (personal protective equipment), we’ll of course expect everybody to be up on their hygiene, and we’re also experimenting with the use of shields, similar to what you would see at the grocery store for example,” said Jory. “That will allow to have a little bit closer contact with still a measure of safety across cohorts.”
Jory said the school district received significant parent interest in offering an online learning program for K-12 students, so the school district is planning to make it available. He cautions, however, that it’s a niche opportunity that some students may enjoy and thrive under, while for others may find it difficult to stay engaged with.
“So we want parents to be very thoughtful about that decision when they make it,” said Jory.
Bus drivers may wear a mask as well as a face shield, and middle and high school students riding the bus are required to wear masks as well. Students who ride the bus will receive an updated Procedure and Code of Conduct for Bus Students form from their bus driver. Parents are asked to review the form with your child and return the signed bottom portion to the bus driver as soon as possible. More information can be found on the School District #83 website.
BC Centre for Disease Control guidelines for schools are firm – any student or staff member who has even mild symptoms related to COVID-19 are not to attend school. Even if it’s just the common cold, students are still expected to stay home.
Jory said the school district and schools will be very vigilant around this.
“The fact it may not be COVID, that’s only part of it,” said Jory. “We want to be safe and we want for people in our system to feel confident, and if somebody has a running nose or they’re hacking or sneezing in the seat next to them, you end up with people being nervous around that. So we all need to buy into the social contract and be responsible and keep our kids home, or stay home as adults if we’re symptomatic like that.
“We’re going to message that very thoroughly and hope that everybody is on the team for that.”
For more information about return to school plans and safety protocols, visit the School District #83 website.