Around 750 students have committed to virtual learning next year in Lambton-Kent.
Those numbers are just a third of students taught through online school this year. Around 400 elementary and 350 secondary students signed up prior to the April 21 deadline.
Director of Education John Howitt says the virtual option is important “especially for students who are immunocompromised or in households with family members who are immunocompromised.”
The school board originally said parents and students wouldn’t be able to change their mind after the deadline due to staffing needs. But the Ministry of Education has asked them to reconsider.
“The ministry has made a request that school boards consider giving parents more time… to decide whether they want to be in remote learning for the entire school year next year,” says Howitt. “We’re in the process of investigating whether or not our collective agreements would allow us to entertain that request.”
This comes as any return to school this year grows more unlikely. Howitt says school boards “don’t get any advanced warning at what might happen. We learn at the same time as the public does.”
But there are hints. “There is a significant concern especially around the ICU occupancy across the province and that continues to play into their decision process,” Howitt says of the Ministry of Education.
A potential boost came to the safety of in-person learning last week when Health Canada approved the Pfizer vaccine for children 12 years old and up. “Having students vaccinated before they enter school in September would be a big step in getting our in-class experience back to normal,” says Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Colby.
“It not only would enhance in-person learning, it would also provide greater opportunity to reinitiate things like extracurriculars and clubs and lower anxiety for all,” says Howitt.
Colby says kids are not at the top of the list yet though. “Children who get COVID tend not to transmit it as efficiently as adults who get COVID,” he says. “So I think we need to stick to the framework the provinces developed with regard to the people who are most at risk for a severe outcome and moving down through the age groups.”
Colby hopes the vaccine will be available to this youngest age group in June or July.
Vaccines could also help facilitate the return of more international students. The school district took a blow in that department this year as only around one-third of their usual 120 students were able to come to Canada.
“It not only enhances the education opportunities for those students coming, we strongly believe that opportunity for our students to learn with others from across the globe gives our students a strong understanding of the world as a whole,” says Howitt.
But as for Canadian students going abroad themselves, Howitt says “At this time we are not encouraging international travel for our students. However we have some great programs that we’re looking forward to restarting hopefully by next spring if it’s possible, or next summer.”
The school board recently wrapped up its first round of asymptomatic testing at schools. The Ministry of Education has requested another round from Lambton-Kent, with Howitt saying “We’re in the process of determining whether or not we’re going to do that or rely on the pharmacies which offer similar opportunities for students and families.”
Alex Kurial, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Independent