Students in Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools are set to go back to school on Sept. 10. (Nanaimo News Bulletin file)

Nanaimo-Ladysmith navigating back-to-school uncertainty

Start of school initially set for Sept. 8 pushed back to Sept. 10

B.C.’s Ministry of Education recently pushed back the start of the fall semester by two days, and more uncertainty will come with back-to-school planning in a pandemic.

Originally, students were set to return to school on Sept. 8, but in a statement last Wednesday, Rob Fleming, B.C. education minister, stated that teachers and staff will meet with their school’s safety committee to discuss updated COVID-19 guidelines Sept. 8, with students back at school on Sept. 10 for orientation.

While Denise Wood, Nanaimo-Ladysmith teachers’ union president, said students aren’t in school for long on the first day of school typically, she said what amounts to an extra day before for the start of school isn’t adequate. She said the ministry wasn’t listening to administrators and teachers.

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“The ministry has bungled this,” said Wood. “They made an announcement far too early. They weren’t listening to all their stakeholders. That plan came out on [July 29] and the principals and vice-principals wrote a letter saying that we needed a delay in school opening. That’s unheard of – principals and vice-principals don’t get involved in these kinds of politics and for them to get involved is quite a big deal.”

Michelle Stilwell, MLA for Parksville-Qualicum, is critical of the B.C. Ministry of Education’s back-to-school plan overall, saying it is continually changing and details aren’t clear.

“How does it work for families who have multiple children, who are in multiple schools, with multiple cohorts?” asked Stilwell. “That puts their families at increased risk, especially if they rely on grandparents for child care, perhaps after-school care etc., how can families feel comfortable then putting those grandparents who are immune-compromised, at an increased risk? The navigation of it is as clear as mud.”

She also said the ministry hasn’t clarified whether hybrid learning, with a mix of in-class and online teaching, will be an option.

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Sheila Malcolmson, Nanaimo MLA, likened the province’s back-to-school plan to the restaurant industry restart, when Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer, provided broad guidelines, but restaurants were responsible for their own safety plans. Malcolmson said back-to-school in Nanaimo will look different then it might elsewhere on the Island, or Metro Vancouver, or remote communities.

“Each school knows its own students and their needs, each school knows their own ventilation system and their own hallway plan and what big spaces do they have that they can use and in new and innovative ways…” said Malcolmson. “Cookie-cutter approaches, designed at a distance, just don’t work on the ground and so it’s going to be educators that shape the final product.”

In an e-mail, Scott Saywell, Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools’ CEO and superintendent, said the district’s back-to-school plan is still being developed and the extra days will give staff a chance to prepare.

“We think the Ministry of Education made a good decision to give principals, school health and safety committees, teachers and support staff a couple days to revise and revisit safety protocols, familiarize themselves with classrooms that will look different as we align with the stage two cohort model of education,” Saywell said. “It will also give teachers an opportunity to ready themselves for teaching assignments that will have changed since June. The orientation week will help in ensuring a safe return to school.”

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