For the first time since March 17, parents dropped off their children at schools across the Saanich Peninsula Monday morning as the province continues to re-open following the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sharon Larade was one of them as her son joined his Grade 4 classmates at Kelset elementary school in North Saanich.
Larade told the Peninsula News Review she was glad to see her son back in school for many reasons. Like so many parents, she suddenly found herself being a substitute teacher for her child, a less than ideal situation, while also trying to balance professional obligations.
“It is challenging to be at home with your child when you can’t be their teacher,” she said. While parents like Larade received teaching material and resources, the situation was just not tenable.
Educational experts have also raised concerns about the pedagogical and ultimately socio-economic effects of the pandemic measures, with some predicting that they will end exacerbating educational inequalities between those students from families with greater resources (including time and access to technology) and those who may lack them.
Overall, Larade is “cautiously optimistic” about her son’s return to school because of the measures that School District 63 has taken.
They included revamped classrooms to reduce contact among students, hygiene measures and reduced capacity. Larade’s son, like all Kindergarten students in the district, will attend classes twice a week with students in middle schools and high schools returning to their classrooms just once a week — if they choose, as Monday’s partial return to in-class instruction remains voluntary.
Larade’s son will receive six days of in-class instruction between now and June 26, the official end of the school year, if he maximizes his attendance.
This raises the question of whether the partial re-opening is worth the effort with summer holidays just around the corner.
“I had similar concerns that it was too short of a period of time, but I think the social impacts [of the lockdown] have been huge,” Larade said. “Kids haven’t seen each other and they need to hang out. I think it is important that they get back and they have, even for a short period time, some familiar structure and that opportunity to spend time with their peer group.”
This aspect was apparent at Deep Cove elementary. While attendance appeared sparse, arriving students greeted familiar faces with shrieks of delight after not having seen them for weeks, even months. While authorities had organized measures to keep teachers and students connected by way of online learning, including virtual show-and-tells, it was apparent that some students fought hard against the urge of showing their appreciation by hugging their teachers after having patiently lined up outside their classrooms.
Dave Eberwein, the district’s superintendent of schools and chief executive officer, witnessed this enthusiasm while visiting a school early Monday morning.
“I know that many students have been missing their school and this is an opportunity to engage with their teachers and other staff in the building,” he said. “I think this is a great way to finish off the school year by having some face to face instruction with students who are able to return at this time. While it is a relatively short time period, it does help to finish off the year in a positive way for the students who are returning.”
Eberwein said the district did not have any attendance figures yet Monday morning, but 50 to 65 per cent of local parents had previously told the district that they would send their children back to school. He added that the district will have a better sense of numbers as this phase unfolds.
Still unanswered is the question of what the fall will look like.
Larade hopes students will receive in-class instruction at a level that will at least match the current one and hopefully exceed it.
Eberwein said things could look different in the fall and the current partial return to in-class instruction offers an opportunity to prototype various measures.
“As you know, [provincial health officer] Dr. Bonnie Henry has said that schools are safe places, and this is an opportunity for us, to take a look at what a partial return to in-class instruction looks like, where we have reduced numbers in the school, where we have re-emphasized certain safety protocols,” he said.
The partial reopening of schools across the district as the province starts to shed measures designed to fight the COVID-19 pandemic mirrors developments elsewhere in British Columbia and the western world, but also adds to the uniqueness of the current school year in the district, for it included a lengthy labour disruption in the fall of 2019.
Eberwein called the school year so far “extraordinary” in praising all parts of the learning community for their creativity in dealing with unusual circumstances.
“It speaks to the values that we put in our district to the relationships that we have and the cooperation and collaboration that we exhibit,” he said. “I am extremely proud with what we have done this year and from where we have come. I think the 2019-2020 school year will be one that most people will remember for a long time.”
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