Back to school this year is ‘back to’ something no one has experienced before.
The effects of the coronavirus pandemic are widespread throughout School District 83, yet can vary substantially from teacher to teacher, parent to parent.
Alana Giesbrecht is a parent and a teacher in the school district. She has four children in school. The youngest, Camryn, just started kindergarten.
Giesbrecht is a part-time teacher of Grade 9 and 10 students at the Jackson campus of Salmon Arm Secondary.
She said her children are happy to go to school and she hasn’t been worried about them contracting the virus. She noted that principals were in the schools four or five weeks before the start date, doing all kinds of scheduling and working hard to prepare. At a teachers’ meeting prior to school starting, she said teachers were taking social distancing very seriously. Giesbrecht said many rules are in place to keep students – and teachers and other staff – safe.
“I think if it (the virus) still spreads like wildfire, it’s for other reasons, not school.”
Graham Gomme is president of the North Okanagan-Shuswap Teachers Association. He said teachers are generally happy to be back at school – “this is what we do, this is what we’re about.”
While COVID-19 made things more difficult, he said the district did the best planning it could. However, the reconciling of predicted student numbers with actual numbers has been more volatile than other years because of the pandemic – and provincial funding is based on student numbers. While enrolment, which has risen in the past five years, is not finalized until Sept. 30, numbers are lower than anticipated.
“The district’s talked about approximately 400 students choosing to stay home. With 6,500 students in the school district, that’s a lot,” Gomme said.
The ‘best guess’ of enrolment was to be presented at the school board’s Tuesday, Sept. 22 meeting.
Three schools are already being impacted by low student-teacher ratios, the ensuing loss of a teacher and class re-configurations: MV Beattie in Enderby, Highland Park in Armstrong and, in Salmon Arm, Shuswap Middle School.
While teachers are being reassigned and not laid off at this point, Gomme would like to see more financial support from the province so all the planning of classes since July could be maintained and disruptions to students and teachers avoided. He pointed out that lower density makes sense with COVID-19.
Superintendent Peter Jory said the district initially forecast a surplus of 12 to 18 teachers, but the education ministry’s transitional enrolment strategy and the infusion of federal funding, which can be used to support online staffing, means only three teacher reductions for now.
Another challenge is dealing with young students. Gomme reported that high school teachers feel for their elementary school counterparts.
“They are trying to figure out how they can work with kids by not tying up their shoes or putting on their jackets. Doing all those things they usually do as a kindergarten teacher when a four- or five-year-old comes in your classroom and doesn’t know what school is about.”
The pandemic has also been hard on janitorial staff, with all the extra work. Some retired janitors have been called back to help out.
Corryn Grayston is the parent of a son who just started Grade 2. She is also president of the District Parent Advisory Council (DPAC).
Speaking as a parent rather than for the DPAC, which doesn’t meet until Sept. 29, Grayston said she has been quite impressed by the information being provided by school district leadership – how they’re keeping parents informed.
“Teachers, staff, EAs, administrators, janitorial – they have all stepped up to the plate to make the new school structure be as normal as possible,” she added.
Grayston said she and her spouse spent a long time thinking about whether to enroll their son in school. As an only child, he needs the socialization. But they were also thinking about his grandma, who is elderly with a compromised immune system.
So every day the Graystons go through the COVID-19 checklist with their son. They also talk to him every day about the kids at school. Are the kids following the COVID rules, how are the teachers doing, the education assistants.
“So far, for our purposes, we’re pleased how things have gone…We just are doing everything we can to keep him safe and we trust that other parents and teachers and staff are doing the same,” she said.
“But there are no guarantees and we realize that.”