Back to school decisions weighing heavy on local families

Tara Jeffrey

Deciding whether or not to send kids back to the classroom next month hasn’t been easy for many local families.

“The biggest thing I’m hearing from parents is that there’s a lot of uncertainty, and that leads to anxiety,” Sarnia paediatrician Dr. Tom Lacroix said in a recent online interview with Bluewater Health Chief of Staff Dr. Michel Haddad to discuss school reopening amid COVID-19.

“Roughly 80% say they’re going to send their kids to school in the fall, but they have a lot of questions. What are things going to look like? How are things going to be done? What are they going to do with children who are attending kindergarten who have a lot of problems with social distancing? How are they going to keep the masks on children’s faces?”

Elementary and Secondary schools across the region are set to reopen for full-time, in-class learning with enhanced safety measures, beginning Sept. 8. Families with children in both the Lambton-Kent and St. Clair Catholic District School boards have until Aug. 28 to decide if they intend to head back to the classroom for face-to-face learning, or remain at home for online, teacher-led instruction. An online survey was sent out late last month, and families who already responded can still change their decision.

After that date, parents will have limited opportunities within the school year to switch between learning methods.

LKDSB director John Howitt said last week that 75% of the board’s 13,000-plus families had already responded to the survey; of those, 90% indicated their intention to return to the classroom.

A detailed reopening plan released last week and posted on the board’s website should help with the decision making, he said.

Similarly, the SCCDSB released a ‘Safe Return to School’ framework online last week.

Both documents cover topics like transportation, screening, hand hygiene, masking, physical distancing, cleaning and scheduling, as well as details about the learn-from-home model.

Students entering Junior Kindergarten at LKDSB schools will have a delayed start on Sept. 14.

Howitt noted that part of the plan includes the hiring of more than 25 additional elementary teachers and more than 15 Early Childhood Educators to reduce class sizes.

Both French language school boards have posted detailed school reopening plans on their respective websites.

Meanwhile, a joint letter issued last week from Dr. Sudit Ranade and Dr. David Colby, the medical officers of health for Sarnia-Lambton and Chatham-Kent, stressed that the decision to send kids to school in-person, “needs to be one that works for you and your family.”

“There is no risk-free situation,” the letter stated, noting that kids with underlying medical conditions may be more at risk, and highlighting the possibility of infecting vulnerable family members at home. “Sending your child to school may increase the risk of getting COVID-19. Keeping your child at home may increase the risk of interrupting their social and developmental wellbeing.”

They noted that while there are no specific thresholds that define when a school should be closed, public health and school board officials will work together to decide the ongoing status of schools, and enforce protective measures including screening, isolation, physical distancing, enhanced cleaning measures, cohorting (keeping groups together) and the use of face coverings.

Late last month the province announced its official back to school plan; students, teachers and school staff must self-screen for symptoms of COVID-19 before leaving home, students in grades 4 to 12 will be required to wear non-medical or cloth masks indoors (kindergarten to grade 3 encouraged) and school-based staff in regular close contact with students will be provided with appropriate PPE, according to the Ministry of Education.

“The government’s return to school plan is seriously flawed for public elementary schools,” said Laurel Liddicoat-Newton, President of the Lambton Kent Elementary Teachers’ Federation. “It is clear that restaurants, grocery stores and gyms will have more safety restrictions in place than elementary schools given the insufficient funding allocated in the plan.”

Liddicoat-Newton said she’s hearing from teachers who are worried about the responsibility of ensuring social distancing within their classrooms, especially in younger grades.

“Teachers are also very concerned about contracting or taking home and spreading Covid-19 from their workplace,” she added. “The emotional stress for all education workers and students and their families has been overwhelming throughout this crisis and well into the summer.”