COVID causes ‘most interesting’ school openings for Holy Family

There have been many adjustments needed at all levels with the reopening of schools on Sept. 8 in the Holy Family Roman Catholic Separate School Division, board trustees heard at their first board meeting of the new school year.

“It’s been the most interesting start up we’ve ever had for Holy Family,” said Gwen Keith, education director for Holy Family, who noted there were two major objectives they aimed for: reducing the risk of transmission of the COVID virus, and continuing classroom instruction with the least disruption possible.

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She noted the staff at the schools had a gift of a few extra days to prepare for school opening when it was pushed back to Sept. 8 from Sept. 1 by the province.

Holy Family, along with all other school divisions, are at Level 2 out of the four levels set by the province’s Chief Medical Health Officer, which requires mask-wearing by students from Grades 4 to 9 in high-traffic areas, such as hallways or anywhere that physical distancing is not possible.

Keith said the decision-making on what level to operate on was left up to the school divisions, but in reality the Chief Medical officer recommended that schools be at Level 2 or higher, and there really is no realistic way a school board can go against that.

“Really what we are looking at for Level 2 is the expectation our school are operating in cohorts, bubbles or clusters. If we were to get any kind of trouble, it would be easier for tracing and for people to stay within their clusters,” she said.

“What we’ve done is give them the gift of bringing in our own nurse that we’ve hired to help us manage the complexity of this, and to help us be OH&S compliant.”

She referred to RN Joan Pratchler, who came in and did an inservice with administrators, teachers, bus drivers and caretakers, giving specific information for their areas of responsibility in how to understand what COVID is and how to make sure people stay safe.

As a part of the board meeting, a series of educational videos about COVID were shown to the trustees, who were then able to sign an official form that they have had full information provided to them about the pandemic and how to deal with it.

Keith noted that the theme for Holy Family for the 2020-21 school year, which goes along with this emphasis, is “Work safely! Teach safely! Learn safely!”

In her presentations, Pratchler told the staff the most important critical piece for everyone involved is proper hand hygiene, followed by proper physical distancing.

“When you think about how the pandemic spreads, the whole focus is why you have to be using things like masks if you can’t properly social distance,” said Keith, adding the school division is staying very tight to the province’s public health officials and their recommendations for safe practices.

“If we have to move to Level 3, it will be in discussion with public health,” said Keith. “We’d have to have a hybrid model where we can’t have as many people in a building as we do now, so how do we micro-manage people in a building in a different way?”

Under Level 3, half of the staff would work from home and half at the school, she added.

Holy Family has hired additional support staff to do the cleaning and sanitizing of the buildings, over and above the normal cleaning of the caretaking staff. The school division has also started their own online cyber school for those parents who are not yet comfortable with sending their children to school.

Each school in Holy Family will have a separate, dedicated room, a “care room”, for any time a child is sick at school or exhibiting any of the symptoms of COVID-19, or even of the flu or a bad cold.

Each care room is equipped with special supplies, and staff are dressed in a gown with mask and face shield, and are trained to look after the child until a parent is able to pick them up.

Asked if the school division is supposed to make up the lost days with the startup of school later than originally planned, Keith said, “The government didn’t tell us to make any further adjustments in our calendar, but they’re also pretty adamant that we still have to achieve all of our outcomes.”

As schools were shut down in March until the end of the last school year, this already put students behind, but the ministry of Education has not mandated any additional requirements, “so it’s up toe the teachers and students,” said Keith.

Some concern was expressed by trustees about people panicking over the signs of a cold and whether people will automatically assume that it’s COVID, particularly with allergies and flu season coming up this fall.

Keith said there will need to be “huge communications” going on with parents and teachers, so if a child does have allergies, the staff at the school will know that, or if a child has a bad cold.

It was also pointed out that parents are not happy that they might have to miss time off work to get a child if they’re in the care room, particularly if they have the sniffles or are sneezing due to something like allergies.

Keith commented this school year will not be a sprint but a marathon, and likely the schools will be dealing with this situation for the entire school year.

Board chair Bruno Tuchscherer said the teachers and administrators both deserve a lot of credit. “How many times have the regulations changed since June? And it could be different again tomorrow. The government is sometimes not on track with what’s going on,” he said.

Another factor that will impact on students and parents is there is a ban on transporting students to events, like sporting events or concerts, and most extra-curricular activities have been put on hold for the time being.

Tuchscherer noted this is very frustrating for parents who have had kids in ball or soccer all summer, and may be taking them to ball or football after school, yet they’re not allowed to have extra-curr sports at the schools.