With schools moved back to online learning amidst a surge in COVID-19 cases, Bluewater District School Board (BDSB) has had to quickly navigate the return despite shortages in technological equipment and internet connectivity issues in rural areas.
“We continue to have pockets of families in our region without adequate internet,” said Jamie Pettit, communications officer for BDSB. “Additionally, we do not have one device to supply to every student, which requires many families with more than one child to share a device.”
“However, we are working closely with our families to distribute all school devices in as equitable a manner as possible.”
The school board oversees 43 schools across Bruce and Grey counties, spread across an 8,673 square kilometre area that includes rural pockets with poor internet connectivity.
The return to online learning came through an abrupt change of course by the provincial government.
On Dec. 30, the provincial government announced that schools would resume in-person learning on Wednesday, Jan. 5, allowing a two-day buffer to deliver enhanced public health supplies, including additional HEPA air filters, N95 masks for staff, and improved masks for students.
By Jan. 3, however, the province walked back on its previous order and moved schools back to online learning until Jan. 17, giving schools less than two days to prepare for the change.
“Our staff have become experts at quickly adapting during the pandemic, and were able to prepare for this latest shift to remote learning. We have always been prepared for this possibility,”
The school board has fared decently in acquiring health supplies from the provincial government, but has yet to receive some of the supplies promised when in-person learning was set to resume on Jan. 5, according to Petit.
“We have an adequate number of HEPA filters with 32 additional units expected to arrive in mid to late January,” Pettit said. “Rapid antigen tests were supplied for our unvaccinated staff, and all students received five tests each prior to the holidays.”
“We are awaiting non-fitted N95 masks for staff, as well as student masks.”
While Pettit views in-person learning as the best environment for students, he said the school board anticipated a number of problems emerging due to the rapid spike in COVID-19 infections in recent weeks.
“Although we know that in-person learning is best for students, the potential impact on staffing resulting from a surge in COVID-19 cases would have made it very difficult to keep some schools open,” he said. “We also would have anticipated high student absences due to isolation requirements.”
Pettit said in-person learning through the current wave of infections could exacerbate staffing issues, which existed in Ontario prior to the pandemic but were further impacted by the spread of COVID-19.
“Similar to the current shortage of qualified teachers in Ontario, we are experiencing a staffing shortage in our board,” he said. “Case numbers had increased significantly this fall in comparison to the fall of 2020. School cases in our area tend to follow community trends, and this was evident prior to Christmas.”
“However, we had very little transmission of COVID-19 in our schools,” he added.
Greg McGrath-Goudie, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, CollingwoodToday.ca