While students and teachers get ready for a return to the classroom, it doesn’t mean it will be a return to normal.
The Lambton-Kent District School Board and the St. Clair Catholic District School Board are getting ready for the new school year with a bit more caution than recommended by the province. As part of back-to-school plans, students in Chatham-Kent won’t have assemblies or eat in the cafeteria when they return to class in September.
Earlier this month, the Ontario government put out their guidelines for a return to class. Students will wear masks, and the province is investing in HEPA filters for classrooms to improve ventilation.
Sports and music are also allowed with safety conditions. However, according to John Howitt, Director of Education for the LKDSB, sports such as football could be sidelined this year as not enough schools have shown interest. Recently, football has been cancelled in Windsor-Essex.
Despite the recommended provincial measures, the Lambton Kent Public Board and St. Clair Catholic Board aren’t ready to adopt all the measures.
“There are a few things that are permitted that we are just not quite ready to embrace yet,” said Howitt. “The public board put out its own back-to-school guidelines. An example of that is assemblies. We think we just need to gather a little bit more data and let the school year get started before we go in that direction.”
As it stands, the plan said all cafeterias would be closed to start the year. However, Howitt noted there’s some wiggle room.
“We have some really small schools where cafeterias may make sense to be used following the guidance of eating in cohorts and maintaining two metres minimum distance between cohorts. But we also have some context in schools where it may still be appropriate for students to eat in the classrooms.”
For schools where the cafeteria is closed, elementary students must bring their own food and eat it with their own class, without sharing.
High school students need to bring their own food but are allowed to leave school to buy lunch. Additionally, there will not be any working vending machines.
All students are allowed to go home for lunch. There will be food at school if students forget to bring some. All ages must also bring a refillable water bottle instead of individually drinking from the fountains.
One difference will be with field trips. The Lambton Kent board will allow them as long as COVID-19 rules are followed, but the incoming Director of Education Scott Johnson said the St. Clair Catholic Board likely wouldn’t have field trips to start the year.
In the SCCDSB, those opting for face-to-face learning from senior kindergarten to grade 12 will start classes full-time on Tuesday, September 7th. Junior Kindergarten students will have a gradual entry on September 8th and 9th, with all students attending by Friday, September 10th.
Remote learning for all grade levels begins September 7th.
Everyone will have to complete a self-screening before coming to school, and masks will be worn indoors and on student transportation by students in grades 1 through 12. Masks are encouraged but not mandatory for those in kindergarten.
While many parents and medical associations call for mandatory vaccines for people who work in the province’s schools, the provincial government isn’t mandating vaccination for staff. Instead, it’s implemented a vaccination disclosure policy where staff must say if they have had a vaccine or have a medical exemption or taken a vaccine education course. Those who remain unvaccinated will have to take a rapid test at least once a week.
As parents make plans for back to school, they won’t know if the teachers in their schools have been vaccinated. Results from the vaccination disclosure policy – which identifies how many teachers and staff at each school have been vaccinated – will be available to the public by September 15th.
According to Dr. David Colby, Chatham-Kent’s Medical Officer of Health, the province’s policy of allowing teachers to have rapid tests if they aren’t vaccinated is not a viable alternative to vaccination.
He cited an example from the Netherlands last month where a music festival requiring either proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test led to an outbreak of more than 1,000 cases. Colby said the 40-hour window between the negative test and the actual concert proved more than enough time for people to spread the virus.
“That frequent testing strategy has not proved useful in preventing outbreaks,” said Colby. “The idea of offering people an alternative to recent negative test results was a good idea, but it is not proving fruitful.”
As with the pandemic itself, officials say the back-to-school plans may evolve and change as necessary to keep staff and students safe.
Bird Bouchard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Ridgetown Independent News