Back to class despite COVID-19

Students attending École élémentaire catholique Saint-Thomas-d’Aquin arrive on their first day of school. Masks are mandatory for students grades 4 and up in Sarnia-Lambton, and measures in classrooms and hallways have been developed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Troy Shantz

Tara Jeffrey

The first day of school may have looked quite different this year, but seven-year-old Billi Hemstreet says she barely noticed.

“It was fun,” said the Grade 2 student at Gregory Hogan, clad in her bright pink face mask. “Having my own desk was my favourite, seeing my friends, and meeting my teacher — he’s so nice.”

As the 2020-2021 school year rolls out in the midst of a global pandemic, officials say they’re doing everything they can to make students feel as ‘normal’ as possible.

“This is brand new territory for all of us,” said Lambton Kent District School Board director John Howitt. “But we are hopeful, and expecting that all of our planning and provisions put in place will be effective and will help to keep everyone safe.”

Following a staggered start beginning last Thursday, classes were in full swing this week across the region, with roughly 85% of students returning to school for face-to-face learning.

The remaining families have opted for virtual, at-home learning. At the public board, that’s about 3,000 students being led by some 130 teachers stationed at three locations — Petrolia, Blenheim and Dresden — providing 225 minutes of online teaching each day. Many of those teachers were chosen based on medical accommodation, qualifications, seniority and general interest. They’ll be joined by support staff covering areas like social work, resource, student success and credit recovery.

“All of those things that are available for supports within the face-to-face school will continue in the virtual school, just through a screen setting instead,” said Howitt.

For those physically going to school where appropriate distancing, hand-hygiene, mask-wearing and other safety measures are in place, the most important work begins at home, he added. Students need to be pre-screened for symptoms before heading out the door.

“We really need families to be vigilant about that. The best way to keep schools safe is to keep clearly symptomatic students at home,” he said. “Once they come to us, we can do our part. However, if ill students are coming to school, that will be a challenge. And that will have an impact that goes beyond the school walls.”

Both the LKDSB and St. Clair Catholic District School Boards have COVID-19 advisory websites set up to report any confirmed cases involving a student or staff member.

“Everyone is feeling some anxiety; we’re in a situation that is unpredictable,” said Deb Crawford, SCCDSB director, who visited a number of schools as they reopened last week.

About 1,000 students are enrolled for online learning with the Catholic board but most are attending in person.

“I witnessed how the schools look a little different, physically,” said Crawford. “But what I’m seeing is happy children — they’re engaged, they’re outside, they’re playing, and there’s a sense of normalcy to it.

“Parents can be assured that every possible step to protect the health and safety of kids, is being taken.”

Grade 3/4 teacher Alyssa Fowlie echoed those comments and says she wants her students and parents to know that she’s on their side.

“I’m here to support them and to make the best of this experience we are all going through,” said the French Immersion teacher at Sir John Moore Community School. “Despite all this craziness, I want my classroom to be a safe place for them to come to and enjoy.”