Like countless other schools across the country, learning in the coming weeks is going to look different in Agassiz-Harrison.
During the August 20 special meeting, the Fraser-Cascade School Board discussed pandemic-related options for returning to school in the coming week. School-specific letters showed up in the mailboxes of parents across the district.
This month, schools across the province will enter stage two of the five-stage framework for K-12 education, one step away from learning as usual. Stage 5 was remote learning for all, Four was remote learning with exceptions and three was in-class and remote learning combined.
The following is a brief rundown of each school’s restart plans.
Agassiz Elementary Secondary School
Staff is returning to work on Tuesday, September 8. Grades seven through nine will start on Thursday, September 10 and grades 10 through 12 start on Friday, September 11. These first days will be dedicated to teaching students new routines and appropriate safety protocols. All students and staff will attend on Monday, September 14.
Students will be organized by cohort, or a learning group of 120 students or less. According to a letter from AESS, learning groups are well below the 120-student threshold mandated by the province. According to SD78 superintendent Balan Moorthy, the cohort organization situation within the district is fairly unique in B.C.
“Fraser-Cascade is unique in the fact that we’re geographically large but not population-dense,” Moorthy said. “I compare this to the high school where I was principal. It had 2,030 kids, and our district is sitting at about 1,700 to 1,800. The school sizes are small enough that most of our grade 9 students, for example, are well under that 120-student threshold, so their grade becomes their cohort.”
Agassiz Centre for Education (ACE) students will follow the same health and safety protocols, training on September 11.
Students on individualized education plans will continue to be supported through the school’s special educational assistance and inclusive teachers in appropriate settings or within the classroom. Indigenous students will receive ongoing support as well.
Custodial staff in the school will sanitize the most touched surfaces once during the the school day. There will be hand sanitizing and washing stations available for use in all classrooms.
Floor markers will be in place to mitigate traffic flow and minimize physical contact. Students will need to provide their own supplies and are not permitted to share between students. Masks are required for all staff, teachers and students while in the halls. Students are not required to wear masks in class with their learning groups. Each student will get two masks.
Students are encouraged to stay on school grounds for lunch; lunch will be broken down by cohorts, who will be able to eat in designated classrooms. Students will be required to wear a mask on the bus.
“We hope you and your family are safe and well as we navigate the start of the school year,” wrote AESS principal Greg Lawley and vice-principal Gord Johnson.
Harrison Hot Springs Elementary
“I am confident we will be able to effectively manage the SD78 Health and Safety guidelines so that the school will be cleaned/disinfected regularly and that the small cohort groups will keep students safe,” wrote Tammy Nazarchuk, HHSE principal, in the letter distributed to HHSE families.
Staff will undergo daily health assessments; any symptoms of the cold, flu or COVID-19 will require them to stay home. Parents are required to conduct similar assessments; students with symptoms need to stay home.
All classrooms will be equipped with hand washing and/or sanitizing stations and will be supervised as they wash. The school will be divided into two or three cohorts, depending on enrollment numbers.
The school does not anticipate changing recess or bell schedules, but the playground will be divided according to cohorts to ensure separation.
Students and staff are required to undergo the same health assessments every day that other schools in the districts are subject to. Students will have hand-washing stations available in every classroom. Staff are encouraged to wear masks and maintain physical distancing when possible.
Students will be divided into six cohorts, the largest of which encompasses portions of grades one and two and numbers 59 students. The smallest, the kindergarten cohort, measures 36 students in size. The playground will be separated into three areas which will be rotated daily.
Food services will continue to be provided to those in need and will be delivered to the classroom rather than having students visit the kitchen.
When busing, students in the same family can sit together but otherwise physical separation will be put into practice whenever possible. Further requirements will be made available as the bus schedule and arrangements are finalized.
‘A sanctuary for kids’
Superintendent Moorthy said that while academic needs have to be considered, the climate of this year is unsurprisingly different than years past.
“The priority has to be the social and emotional health of the students,” he said. “They’ve been out of school for more than 130 days. What we know is the need for social and emotional connection, feeling safe and connected, and beyond that, the focus has to be core competencies and foundational skills; we want our students to be numerate, literate and socially responsible.”
There are ultimately four options before returning students, according to a recent letter from Moorthy: returning to school, a slow transition into in-person learning, learning via the Western Canadian Learning Network and full homeschooling.
By the time a decision is made for each family in the district, Moorthy anticipates a 70-30 per cent split with most wishing to return to in-person learning in some capacity.
“I’ve heard back from a few parents who are just looking forward to returning. I haven’t heard a lot from students yet, but missing their friends is a theme that’s out there,” Moorthy said. Moorthy added while there is understandable concern surrounding COVID-19 spread, the area encompassing the district has one of the lowest infection rates in the province, and the district hopes to keep it that way.
Even with preparation in place, there is concern at multiple levels for Moorthy.
“Teachers, principals both elementary and secondary, I don’t know of anybody who’s been hit harder right now,” he said. “I feel for the exhaustion of teachers and the school management staff. When you start to look at decision-making and the reality of COVID, it’s a frightening thing. There are conflicting results about youth transmission. Then you start to lay on mental health, anxiety, rates of depression, abuse, loss of learning and social connection and the scale tips heavily toward kids going back. I realize there’s a mitigated risk.”
Moorthy said he’s personally experienced COVID-19 impacts “on a granular level,” including illness within his close family. His daughter, who currently lives in Switzerland, had to alter wedding plans in northern Italy. One of his other daughters hasn’t been back to school in New York since March while a third graduated, her family having to tune in remotely to witness the achievement.
Moorthy remains firm in the belief that ultimately, in-school instruction is best for the emotional, mental, social and educational needs of students across the district.
“This is an amazing school district with lots of people who love and care about the kids,” Moorthy said. “These are amazing communities and what I would say to them right now is our hope is that the school system will provide a sanctuary for kids we think it can be.”
The complete letters are available online at www.agassizharrisonobserver.com.
– With files from Emelie Peacock