Mike Lee’s kids won’t be going back to school on Monday.
For the past two months during the pandemic they’ve been learning from their teachers online and are doing just fine with that.
“It’s mostly for safety reasons,” said Lee. “I know (the pandemic) is kind of petering out a bit but for four weeks, why bother. I’m not really worried about COVID, but why take the risk. It’s kind of hardly worth it because they only go for half days.”
Staying home for the last month for the school year means his five-year-old daughter Jordyn will miss having her kindergarten graduation ceremony, while his eight-year-old son Ryder is going to finish his Grade 3 studies at home, watching his teacher conduct live lessons on a computer using the Zoom app.
They are not alone staying home.
B.C. schools are not expecting a majority of students will return until the new school year begins in September. Like all parents, Lee is optimistic that by then, school will be a lot more like it was for his kids before the COVID-19 outbreak forced the province to suspend in-class instruction on March 17, two days into the two-week spring break.
For the next four weeks of the voluntary return to school, students in kindergarten-Grade 5 will have classes two days per week, while students in Grades 6-12 will be in class just one day a week. Class sizes will be cut in half to encourage physical distancing and students will be sitting at desks widely spaced out to keep them separated and limit the likelihood of touching each other.
Ryder talks to his teacher and sees his classmates virtually every school day on the screen of his tablet while they do their assignments but Jordyn doesn’t have that advantage because kindergarten isn’t online. Two-and-a-half months without seeing her friends is more like a lifetime to a five-year-old.
“It’s hard for her,” said Mike. “We’re trying to keep their minds fresh so we’re printing off worksheets. Ryder’s teacher (Miss Stewart) has been amazing, every day she emails stuff for him to do and it’s a huge list – English, writing, even gym time. He has to go outside and pick up some garbage.”
Ryder misses interacting with his buddies around the schoolyard at Glenview Elementary School but knows eventually there will be a time when that degree of forced separation will come to an end. Until then, he’ll have to use a phone to talk to them or see them on his screen.
“There’s 23 kids in my class - it’s kind of like Facetiming, little squares that show my friends’ faces,” said Ryder. “We usually play soccer together and run around chasing each other. It’s fun.
“One of my friends might go back to school but nobody else, I think.”
Schools have been open the past six weeks to students whose parents are essential health care and first responders but Monday marks the first time the general student population will be on the premises. The return to face-to-face instruction is voluntary and students who don’t come back for the last month will continue to learn their subjects online.
At Sacred Heart Elementary School, two grades are being combined in each classroom and the older kids in Grades 6 and 7 will get their lessons sitting two metres apart from each other in the school gym. Principal Bryan MacLean says just 38 of the 164 kids (23 per cent) attending his school were expected to show up for class on Monday.
“I’m thinking the kids will be pretty excited, they get to see their friends and have the opportunity to come back to school and finish off the year and I think they’ll be happy to be here,” Maclean said.
“The social part of development with children is almost the thing we value most in that (elementary) age group, and I see it in my own kids too. It’s hard not having your peers around. It’s got to be really tough on those kids to not have that opportunity, especially in the spring when you typically get out to do more field trip activities, and they’re missing out on those things.”
It’s been hard on the kids and the teachers feel the pain of that lost connection as well.
“That’s why we do what we do, we enjoy that interaction with kids and seeing them progress with their education and we just don’t get to see that in the same way right now,” said MacLean. “We’ll do the best we can through the month of June to do it well and do it safe and we’ll have a good end to the school year.
“We can wait and see what September brings. We’ll listen to what the health office and the Ministry of Education is saying and just follow their lead. They’ve done a great job through all this and all we can do is trust their information.”
School buses will be back in operation Monday. Buses will be equipped with plastic shields for the driver with enhanced surface cleaning part of daily maintenance. Students will have to practice physical distancing, sitting one to a seat unless they share the same household.
School playgrounds will be reopened by Friday but will not be cleaned or disinfected, which means students will be expected to wash their hands thoroughly after using the equipment. Students and/or staff who feel any cold or flu-like symptoms are advised to stay away from the schools.
School District 57 chair Tim Bennett said the class schedules for each student have been sent to parents, either by email or phone and the district has sent a letter which outlines what they can expect on the first day of class. Configuration of classrooms and the interpretation of COVID-19 provincial guidelines and safety protocols have been left up to each individual school to reflect that building vary in design.
“In terms of parents, there’s just a lot of questions and uncertainty and we’re working to address those concerns,” said Bennett. “There’s still a lot of uncertainty about the virus and we’re just encouraging patents to make a decision that’s best for their family.”
Although Quebec schools reopened two weeks ago, there hasn’t been a model for B.C. educators to follow while planning the reopening strategy.
“The ministry provided its guidelines and left a lot of flexibility in decision-making to the district,” said Bennett. “I know our staff are working incredibly hard getting ready to welcome more students into the building come Monday.”