Back to school questions and answers

Twelve questions with School District 60 Superintendent Stephen Petrucci on the return to class June 1.

How is District planning going for June 1? What’s been easy? What’s been a challenge?

It’s like our third school startup, essentially. We started in September, then after spring break when everything was shut down, we started up again in a smaller way but for vulnerable kids and the kids of emergency support workers. Now, we’re doing our third startup, in terms of a part-time return to school in the first week of June.

To be perfectly honest with you, we’re getting a little bit of planning fatigue. However, the schools and the District are prepared and have carried out the planning for what they're calling Stage 3. We are ready for that for Monday.

This past week, the schools have been reaching out to families. As you know, it’s optional for families to send their kids. Schools have been reaching out with surveys and phone calls to find out how many more kids will be coming back and then arranging their schedules accordingly.

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How many students have already been receiving in-class instruction? How many are anticipated to return to class next week?

Up to last week, we already had 635 kids in our schools. That number represents mostly students that we would consider vulnerable as well as a small portion of that the kids that are Tier 1 emergency support worker families.

So far in our elementary end of things, they’re looking at between 50-60% of their regular population coming back. Now there’s a couple of outliers there, around 80%.

For elementary, that’s still a staggered attendance model. If you’re a Grade 2 class and you found out 10 of your kids are coming back, they are still spread out over the four days. So, Group 1 would be 5 students and they would attend Tuesday and Wednesday; and Group 2 would be the other five students attending Thursday and Friday. With 50-60% coming back, that’s not the number of students on the same day. There’s density level targets we have to respect.

With the density being a lot smaller at the high school, the requirement there is only for one day per week. So, the math is that you can spread that out and easily accommodate a one-day-a-week attendance if only half your population is even interested in coming back. They don’t know their exact numbers yet, but they set up a structure where students will be scheduled in to come for that one day and it will be more about on-site support and tutorial, with some of the remote learning that continues to go on.

I don’t have final numbers yet for middle and secondary. Whatever happens though, that 20% density will need to be followed. So at any given time, a typical secondary classroom would have no more than six students in it. Fifteen would be the maximum for intermediate, and for primary the maximum would be between 10 and 12.

What can students, parents, and teachers, expect in terms of new health and safety protocols? Can you guarantee their health and safety?

There’s a whole report from the PHO on COVID for K to 12 (click here to access), and in that report, we're basically sticking to the initial guidelines, and that is that there are some administrative procedures and protocols, there’s things like personal hygiene, the washing of hands; there’s plans for the entry and exit of the school, for the spaces within the school, like the photocopying room or office or bathrooms, and, of course, desks and tables being spread out within the classrooms.

There’s very specific health and safety guidelines all of the staff are working through right now, some of those were already in place. There’s a health and safety committee at every site, they’ve been going through that, they’ve made up the signage, and they’ll have that posted in every school as well. The safety piece is critical.

Does the district intend to allocate funds to buy staff and students PPE who choose to wear it, either in June, or next fall?

On PPE, I don’t know if you’ve read through that documentation from the PHO, but it’s the last piece that sort of makes the least amount of difference that they’re recommending. We’re not going to prevent any student or staff member from wearing PPE, they’re welcome to do so.

I raise the question because we have seen our public health officers in the last week recommend wearing masks in certain situations. And MLA Dan Davies has called on the province to make sure all classrooms have handwashing and sanitization stations, and to allocate funds so school districts can buy PPE for staff and students.

We have sanitizing stations and cleaning procedures set up at every location, and every classroom there’s a whole disinfecting process. We have a day custodian at every site and an evening custodian for deep cleans. So as per the PHO requirements there will be two cleanings a day.

Back to PPE, anybody who wants to wear it can, but while there’s lots of different things out there from MLAs or social media or anything else, we go by the PHO. If you go back to the K to 12 PHO guidelines there is no requirement for staff and students to be wearing PPE, unless they were before for their particular assignment. So, for example, some of our facilities people, our construction people are doing sanding or dusting, they have a mask for that purpose.

The language in the PHO guidelines for K to 12, any of those precautions, they call them univesral precautions, that were taken before will continue with those particular kids. On an individual basis, if those needs have changed, or there’s any particular additional risk, we’d definitely assess that to see if there’s further PPE required.

How does the District intend to monitor and track staff and students who enter the building for Covid-19?

It’s a requirement by the Ministry of Education that we do attendance every day. And so each day through MyEdBC, which is our online tool for attendance, we’ll be taking attendance for the kids that are there for the kids that day, and that information will be passed along to the Ministry. My understanding is they’re going to be referring to that on a daily basis, in terms of the attendance patterns across the province.

Parents need to do an assessment of their child before they send them to school, and there’s medical information available on site from the PHO, from the CDC, in terms of any symptoms, whether it’s related to COVID or whether they could just be sick from a cold or flu. Anyone who is sick we ask to stay home.

In terms of the self-assessment, that’s on the parents to do that with their child each day, and each of our staff members are now required to do their own self-assessment before they come to work as well.

There will be no thermometers at the door. We’re not the medical professionals. We will not be screening people at the door, that is however a requirement for them to do on their own. There will be nobody signing a document when they come in around that piece. We put out information that the self-assessment needs to be done before they come, whether you’re a student or staff.

Will teachers have to take a sick day and isolate if they have mild symptoms - cough, cold, etc. - or do they stay home and continue remote learning?

Number one, if you’re not well stay home. That's definitely is going to apply. Rather than speculate on individual issues, that’s the broad expectation. We would deal on an individual basis if somebody was in fact infected with COVID or did have stay at home and we had to make accommodations. We’re working through that process right now. There will be some staff, for example, who for good reason will qualify for underlying medical conditions or those sorts of things where the accommodation would be that they continue to work from home. But that’s a very small number of staff.

During this time now next week, if someone falls sick, then they should stay home and follow all of the regular procedures they would normally do in terms of getting the medical assistance they need, staying connected to the school, but they would be staying home if they are sick.

You’re also asking about the HR piece around sick banks, and whether or not they’re using sick time and if they’re still working from home. There’s no one answer to that. It’s going to come down to more of an individual situation, staff member by staff member. The issue of sick time has definitely come up and we’re working with our provincial partners on how to best handle that.

What is the plan and protocol if a case of COVID or an outbreak is confirmed at a school? How are you ensuring consistency between schools?

I am going to refer you back to the PHO document. On the last two pages it includes very specific protocols around if a student or staff member starts to feel sick during the day. There will be consistency across the district in terms of how that is handled. Every school, for example, will have an isolation room available, where if someone develops symptoms of COVID, then we have a process, we’ll follow those protocols.

If an actual case of COVID is confirmed, then the Health Officer takes over, as they would for other situations like this. Contact tracing, and whatever follow-up they do, we would be working with the PHO and our local Health Officer on how to best handle that, and they would be involved directly. For a confirmed case, we would be on the phone and we would be working with Northern Health and the PHO. We would defer to the experts at that point. 

Does the District have the TOC coverage needed for sick teachers?

Great question. Honestly, I can say I don’t know.

Our TTOC list has always been tough, in terms of we could always need more. It’s clear though that some of those may not return for the three weeks in June, and next fall I don’t know. Several our people on the TTOC list are retired teachers and we would totally understand they would not be wanting to take those kinds of risks. We’ll have to see how much coverage is needed.

As you can imagine there’s a difference between the next three weeks, and even next fall. Because right now it’s a lot lower density attendance, so we think we can manage for the next three weeks.

This is clearly a question you’re going to want to ask me in the fall as well. I am a bit concerned about coverage next year.

There are concerns from teachers that their workload will increase as a result of in-class and remote teaching. How will the district mitigate those workloads for June and fall? Will extra prep time be provided?

The District has involved our union partners in the strategic planning from Day 1, and that planning continues. In fact today we’ll be meeting with our union partners again, as we do every week, to work through some of these very issues, including teacher workload.

I don’t know if you saw the last parent letter that I put out there, I was letting parents know that the scope and the pace of the remote learning will be less because we do have to balance the in-person instruction with those remote learning responsibilities. So there are going to be some adjustments.

Generally speaking, we’ve set up a model where Mondays would primarily would be for some preparation and some remote learning attention. We could have vulnerable students or students of Tier 1 and Tier 2 workers present on Monday, but we’re trying to line up a regular part-time attendance model to be Tuesday through Friday to partly address the workload issue that you’ve raised.

What challenges has COVID presented for teacher recruitment for the fall?

We had a very robust recruitment cycle that happened prior to COVID, prior to spring break. We feel quite fortunate that we’ve been able to fill the vast majority of our positions for next year, first of all. Both the District and the school administrators have kept in contact with these people to make sure that they’re still coming, and fielding their questions. We feel confident our baseline staffing will be in place and ready to start the year in September.

We started a couple years ago hiring what we call district TTOCs, so full-time contract positions, and I believe we have three or four hired for next year as well. However, based on what you just asked, we’re not sure what our coverage is going to be like if there’s a significant increase in the amount of sick time, or if some of the regular people on our TTOC list no longer offer their services. It’s a bit of speculation at this point, and it is something we are worried about.

Any final words about June 1, and what's to come in the fall?

Honestly, in all aspects of the system, this has been a challenge for everyone: families, parents, admin, teachers, support staff, everybody. We also need to remember part of this plan is not only because it’s safe to do so, the PHO has told us that, first of all, to bring back kids. But also we’re part of a bigger plan. We are public servants, and the economy has taken a major hit, and people also want to get back to work when they can, if they still have jobs. So, I also feel fortunate that while it’s been a lot of work, lots of people have lost their jobs.

I'm just so thankful to the work all staff has done. Again, this has been the third startup of the school year and I just want to acknowledge the work and I’m very grateful for that.

Looking ahead to next year, every day feels like a week right now, and it’s just really hard to speculate on what September looks like because there’s so much planning involved right now for June.

I’ll be more than happy to reconnect in August as to how things are shaping up. Right now the Ministry has said the goal is to start as close to normal as possible. September seems so far off, but you can be sure we’re starting those conversations.

Email Managing Editor Matt Preprost at editor@ahnfsj.ca.

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