Questions linger for many parents, teachers and students about what school is going to look like at Ottawa's largest school board when some schools reopen in one week's time.
The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) is set to welcome back its younger high school students on Sept. 8 with older students returning on a staggered schedule until Sept. 18. Elementary students aren't scheduled to begin to return to class until Sept. 14 at the earliest.
Both primary and secondary online school starts Sept. 18.
On Tuesday morning, Camille Williams-Taylor, the education director for OCDSB, spoke with CBC's Ottawa Morning to answer the many questions that continue to dog the school board.
Start dates extended for elementary students
"Our school configuration in Ottawa is quite complex," Williams-Taylor said, explaining why some classes won't start until later in the month. "This has been a challenging school year to get us started because we do know that a lot of the information that we needed to get started wasn't available in the usual time."
In a normal school year, the information used to design classes is available in June, she said. This year, given the concerns about safety and having to put new protocols in place, the board needed the extra time to make sure classrooms are ready.
Williams-Taylor acknowledged that extending the start date may be frustrating to families, but once routines are in place, "we believe the investment in the wait is worth it."
Not all teachers have received their assignments at this point. By the end of this week, Williams-Taylor said she expects the majority of teachers, education assistants and other staff have their assignments so they can prepare for the school year.
Protocols for COVID-19 cases in schools
The school board has been working closely with public health officials on procedures for potential COVID-19 cases in class, Williams-Taylor said. Last week, the Ministry of Education announced a new protocol for tracking cases, including isolation rooms in schools.
Another key piece is how to communicate with staff and students, said Williams-Taylor, "to maintain confidence, as well as to ensure the privacy and the dignity of the students that might have been identified with what may appear to be COVID-like symptoms."
As for what would happen to the rest of the class if one student tests positive for COVID-19, some isolation would be required, she said. The specific steps and timing depend on the circumstances, including the school and the ages involved. The board is working with public health officials and principals on these protocols, she added.
WATCH | Entire community plays a role
Virtual support for in-class learning
If a student does become sick and is unable to return to in-class learning, Williams-Taylor said a virtual learning system has been set up to support those students, separate from the remote learning stream. All classroom materials will be posted online so students have uninterrupted access to learning, and students can continue their work whether they're in class or at home.
"We know that at any given time we can have a student or groups of students who are unable to attend in person," she said. "We're going to have a lot of ebb and flow."
Responding to concerns over ventilation in schools, Williams-Taylor said the ministry of education has been working with the school board to improve air flow. Since each school is different, the board is exploring various options such as bringing in portable units to support airflow and maximizing natural ventilation where possible.
"We have been inspecting, repairing, upgrading over the past several months," she said. "We have improved our ventilation structures in all of our sites."
What we still don't know
While some details have been released about the English public board's back to school plan, including sample schedules for students which will see secondary students cover a single subject for four hours and online learners joining students from across the district, there are many unanswered questions.
That includes what schools will look like inside.
CBC Ottawa reached out to the school board for a tour before the start of class but the board turned down our request. OCDSB Spokesperson Darcy Knoll said schools are simply too busy with staff "working incredibly hard to prepare for the school year."
WATCH | Keeping at-home learners connected
Families still don't know what subjects students will be taking this fall or how recess and lunch breaks will be monitored. OCDSB has promised to optimize outdoor learning but have provided few details of that plan.
Williams-Taylor said while it's not feasible to set up a classroom outdoors, the board is working with teachers so they can access outdoor spaces and materials that are easily transported outside.
Ottawa Public Health for its part has said it will publicize cases of outbreaks at schools in the city. Outbreaks will be defined as two or more cases of COVID-19 linked to the school environment.
In cases where just one person tests positive, OPH said it will telephone anyone who may have had close contact with the case, privately.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.