Widely spaced desks, individual math kits and hand sanitizer stations were just a few of the sights on hand inside Elizabeth Park Elementary in Paradise on Tuesday morning, less than 24 hours before students will arrive to fill its hallways, and similar ones in schools across Newfoundland and Labrador.
Tony Stack, CEO of the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District, was on hand Tuesday as the media were taken through Elizabeth Park for a glimpse of the changes the district has made ahead of what promises to be a very different school year. Students are returning to classrooms Wednesday for the first time since schools were shut in mid-March as the COVID-19 pandemic reached the province.
"We're ready to open, ready to open safely," said Stack.
Principal Elizabeth Churchill agreed.
"It's a lot of excitement, a lot of preparation, but we're ready to go and looking forward to it," she said.
While every school will be slightly different, all students will encounter myriad changes. At Elizabeth Park, different entrances are being assigned to different grades, and all students will sanitize their hands once through the doors, before heading to their class, where "they become their own bubble," Churchill said, spending most of their school day and lunch break with that set of students and teacher.
At Elizabeth Park, water fountains are now off-limits for drinking but OK for bottle-filling, and markers are on hallway floors and walls to ensure people stay physically distanced.
Some schools in the district will be using outdoor classrooms, said Stack.
"We're really pushing the notion of going outside, as much as possible."
Churchill said teachers and staff will be reinforcing "healthy distancing" with students, instead of breaking out any measuring tools.
"We'll talk about the importance of healthy space. We'll approach it from a positive, safe and caring schools kind of way," she said.
Handwashing for all grades will be emphasized, with younger children taken through the steps of how to do so effectively. While such hygiene is always taught, "particularly this year, that will be heightened," she said.
The weeks leading up to Wednesday's reopening have seen a flurry of changes made to the district's return-to-school plan, first released Aug 17. While the additional teachers, guidance counselors and administrators announced on Aug. 26 are still being hired, Stack said Tuesday that schools are ready.
"All of these additional things are being worked into our system right now," he told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show on Tuesday, adding that some of the vacant positions will be filled by substitutes until the hiring process is complete.
Buses for everyone, by end of September
Hiring is complete for 80 additional casual custodial positions, he said, to take care of enhanced cleaning protocols now in place that include both more frequent cleaning of high-touch surfaces during the school day, and deep cleans after students leave in the afternoon.
More bus drivers are also being hired, said Stack, with some coming out of retirement.
As of Wednesday, more than 5,000 students will still not be able to ride the bus to school as the district works to find additional buses and drivers. Stack said by next Monday, that number will drop to 4,000, and down to 700 a week later.
"Seven hundred's still a huge number. By the end of September we hope to have everybody who is authorized, an eligible rider, to have a seat on the bus," Stack told reporters.
Stack said some buses were ferried over by Marine Atlantic on the weekend, and additional staff are working on the file.
"It is a hardship. All I can do is apologize for it," he said.
Virtual learning not ready
One element not yet in place is virtual learning for students who won't be in class Wednesday morning due to compromised immune systems. The 10 new, full-time teachers announced on Sept. 3 to provide more online instructions for those students, as well as students who must spend time in quarantine, have not yet been hired.
"That's one of the resources that came late," Stack said.
"That'll roll out over the next few weeks."
Stack said in the meantime, there will be materials provided to keep those students learning, but he emphasized that most students, even many with underlying health issues, should be in school.
"Schools are safe. We really hope that most students attend school. This is a low-, or no-COVID environment," he said.
Stack said if students are advised medically to not attend, "right away, we'll have an outreach from the school. We'll look at a continuity of learning plan."
He said while there have been "a lot of inquiries" around home-schooling, he had no data yet on the number of students that will stay out of classrooms for the school year.
For everyone, Stack pointed to the COVID-19 assessment checklist parents are supposed to use to screen their children daily, prior to heading out the door.
"Religiously adhere to that, then we'll keep our schools safe," Stack said.
What happens if a student gets sick?
The district has protocols for if a student falls ill during the day, as announced in its initial plan. There are isolation rooms set up in every school for the child to wait in, stocked with personal protective equipment, until a parent or guardian can come pick them up.
But what happens to the rest of a class if that student tests positive for COVID-19 is not the education system's call, said Stack.
"The medical authorities are those that are responsible for doing the contact tracing. We won't be doing any informing," he said. Epidemiology will direct whether a classroom, school or even a region would have to close, he said.
Public health is also responsible for providing direction to families if a parent or other member of a household tests positive, he said, and it's not up to the school district to make the call if a student in that scenario can attend school or not.
If parents do end up with more questions in the ever-evolving situation, Stack said a good resource is the district's frequently asked questions website, which he said is updated daily or even hourly, as need be.
"That's a one-stop shopping place for parents to go," he said. "That'll have the most current answers to the more salient questions."