SD78 board: Cautious optimism, anxiety mix as school year begins

To say it’s been an eventful two months for Superintendent Balan Moorthy and the entire staff and board of School District No. 78 would be an understatement.

The Fraser-Cascade School District superintendent expressed cautious optimism for the year ahead during the regular school board meeting on Monday, September 22.

Moorthy said according to the current provincial guidelines, the aim was for full-time instruction as much as possible. From August 10 to August 26 – just over two weeks – the district created a return plan based on a template from the Ministry of Education. As part of the planning process, the district’s administrative team met five times over the course of August.

“Many gave up a large portion of their holidays to come back to work,” Moorthy said. “They have communicated well with their communities and managed their buildings for a great start-up.”

RELATED: School board outlines Agassiz-Harrison startup plan

Moorthy said one of his former schools, Walnut Grove Secondary School, utilized their print shop to create coroplast signage and vinyl to remind students and staff about traffic flow and the need for physical distancing.

Moorthy displayed a health and safety plan from Boston Bar Elementary-Secondary School detailing traffic flow as an example of the attention school officials have given to the return plan.

“I was there just last week and how careful they are with the protocols is just a tremendous amount of work,” Moorthy added.

In a previous interview with The Observer, Moorthy estimated the district would see about a 70-30 split when it came to students returning to in-person learning in some capacity. As of Monday, September 22, Moorthy estimated about 85 per cent of SD78 students have returned to in-person learning with that number expected to trend upward. About 10 per cent of students are on a transition back to school option. About 4 to 5 per cent of students are on Option 3, online learning support for grades 4 to 12. Moorthy reported about 1 to 2 per cent of students are completely home schooled.

While this number adds up to about 102 per cent – something Moorthy mirthfully acknowledged during the meeting – he said the estimates were fairly rough. Nonetheless, he said clear majority of students are coming back to them.

“It’s amazing to see our students back,” he added. “We are really excited to have them back with us and their smiles show it.”

Trustee Wendy Colman-Lawley said that while she is overwhelmed with and questioning the constantly changing plans from the Ministry of Education, she thinks the plans look great.

“I hope our kids are safe,” she said. “I know that kids need each other and they need to learn and they need teachers, and that’s the best model we have. We stay the course and encourage all our leadership to continue and hope that our teachers are safe.”

Trustee Heather Stewin shared similar sentiments.

RELATED: Plans around SD78 school re-start begin to crystallize

“I’ve got to agree; I was pretty apprehensive about kids going back to school and getting out of their bubbles,” Stewin said. “I’ve also had the opportunity to see how well the staff is diving into this and putting their best foot forward. It’s just so appreciated. The feedback I’m getting from my community is they are optimistic and feel comfortable about having their kids back at school.”

In other school board business, Secretary-treasurer Natalie Lowe recapped the recent announcement from the Canadian government that they were one of two school districts in the province to serve in a pilot program involving the use of seat belts in school buses. Naniamo-Ladysmith is expected to follow in the second phase beginning in January 2021.

Lowe said the district was provided with a seatbelt-fitted school bus expected to arrive later this month, where it will be put in the fleet in Hope along with a bus monitor.

“Everything is underway and we’re really excited to have a free bus and maybe even learn something along the way about what’s going on on the roads,” Lowe said.

Colman-Lawley added that this initiative would have pleased the late trustee John Koopman, who was intensely passionate about student safety. Longtime Fraser-Cascade educator Koopman suddenly passed away in May this year.

The board elected Ron Johnstone as chair and Linda Kerr as vice chair, both of whom are reprising their roles from last year.

Upon accepting the role, Johnstone took time to express appreciation to the district staff for their hard work in preparing to return amid the pandemic.

“They’re ensuring that every family and every student in the district are well-supported,” Johnstone said. “We know this is difficult work – anxiety and fear and the unknown dangers of COVID-19 is ever-present. You have all willingly put the best of yourselves forward in the best interest of our students, and as a spokesperson for our board, I would like to sincerely thank all of you for your many contributions during these difficult and unprecedented times.”

The board elected Colman-Lawley as their representative to the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association (BCPSEA) with Johnstone serving as alternate. Cathy Speth was elected to the B.C. School Trustees Association (BCSTA) Provincial Council with Johnston as an alternate, and Stewin will serve on the BCSTA Fraser Valley Branch Council.

Trustee Linda Kerr read a note from Kathy Koopman, John Koopman’s wife. Kathy thanked the board and staff for all the support the past few months.

John Koopman’s seat as school board trustee is, for the time being, to remain vacant; On May 26, Minister of Education Rob Fleming signed a Ministerial order cancelling the by-election for the vacancy to be cancelled due to special circumstances related to the pandemic. No further plans have been announced at this time.

The next school board meeting is scheduled for October 20 at 7 p.m.

– With files from Emelie Peacock

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