Combine the two provincial government announcements in recent weeks and school divisions seem pleased, although they could certainly use more funding to help pay for the enhanced safety measures.
Back on July 21, nearly two weeks ahead of the original planned release, the province came out with its return-to-class strategy that would see more than 750,000 students going back to their classrooms this fall.
At the time, the plan was very basic — all students go back to school with no caps on class size and a guideline to physically distance or keep separate as much as possible. Everything else would be left up to individual school divisions to determine.
Parents, students and teachers were left confused, some even outraged, at the lack of details and very little in the way of funding to ensure this return would be conducted safely.
Even school divisions were caught off-guard, including the Battle River School Division (BRSD). However, as they had been working on all three scenarios mentioned back in June, it was somewhat easier to focus on a plan for an in-class return.
Then on Aug. 4, the province updated their plan to include mandatory masks for all Grade 4 to 12 students as well as teachers and other school staff. Each student and staff member will be provided two reusable masks by the province.
Staff can also request one plastic face shield, which is optional, though a mask must be worn under the shield.
The BRSD is happy to see the province deciding to provide some masks, especially since the division has used up its reserves.
“The division is pleased there will be government support for PPE (personal protective equipment) for both students and staff. We appreciate the financial support very much, and consider the use of masks to be an extra layer of protection, in addition to the other protocols we are implementing, to help ensure students and staff can feel safe at school,” said Diane Hutchinson, BRSD communication coordinator.
BRSD will be receiving about $700,000 more this coming school year than last, but that money won’t be going to stave off many of the cuts to staffing levels the division was forced to make earlier this year due to cuts in provincial funding.”
The additional dollars that BRSD received are mostly focused in the operations, maintenance and transportation areas,” Hutchinson added.
“We will be using some of the funds to cover the costs of providing PPE and additional custodial time to do the extra disinfecting required during the school day.”
As for BRSD’s plan for when school resumes, there will be a lot put on students and parents as well as there will be a vastly different school day for everyone.
Hutchinson explained that families and all staff will be expected to complete a self-assessment before coming to school and those that are not feeling well should be staying home.
Meanwhile, all elementary and junior high students will stay in one group or cohort. This means taking classes and breaks together, but not having to physically distance from each other.
However, each cohort will have to distance themselves from other cohorts in the school.
“Our high schools will be moving to a quarterly semester system, with a semester being about 10 weeks,” she added.
“That means students will take two classes per semester instead of four. This gives more concentrated learning time, as well as reducing the number of other students each person is exposed to over the course of a day.”
To accommodate this, diploma exams will be available four times during the school year.
The BRSD realizes this plan will not suit everyone, but it’s goal is to provide as safe an environment as possible for students and staff.
“As Dr. Deena Hinshaw has said, there is no risk-free approach to back-to-school, but the school division is doing our best to consider and mitigate the risks,” Hutchinson said.
“We do recognize that some people may not feel that having their children attend school in person is the best option for their family. We have let families know that, in mid-August, we will be sending out a survey asking parents if they plan to have their children attend school in person or continue with at-home learning.
“Knowing this will help the school division ensure we have the right balance of resources in place to support learning, whichever options parents choose.”