ERIN – “Kids are excited to be back.”
That’s the sentiment St. John Brebeuf Catholic School principal Lowell Butts shared in a Sept. 14 interview with the Advertiser.
“I do the ‘kiss and ride’ outside of our school and we had 40 or 50 cars pulling up and dropping off kids and all of them are super excited to be back at school and see their friends,” he added.
Wellington Catholic District School Board (WCDSB) director of education Mike Glazier agreed it’s been a happy start to the school year.
“It’s actually a nice feeling to have the kids back into school and it sort of brings back some of that routine that they crave and some of our staff crave as well,” he said on Sept. 14.
The board’s first and primary focus, in addition to keeping students physically healthy and preventing COVID-19, is on mental health and wellbeing.
“Trying to help our students to make sure that they feel safe and comfortable as they come back and then once we make those connections and we’ve got that safe environment with our classrooms, then the focus on academics becomes the next important factor for us to consider,” Glazier said.
To help prepare, Wellington Catholic delayed the start of the school year by two days.
“We took the two extra days just to make sure our staffing was in place, that all those staff knew all … the health and safety protocols that were in place,” Glazier said.
Even then, when the school year officially began on Sept. 10, the board used a staggered opening model.
“The opportunity to do a staggered entry is good because we’re allowed and grateful for the time to teach [students] about social distancing, the safety protocols around wearing the mask, hand washing, staying responsible that way and staying in our cohorts too,” Butts said.
“It’s been a long lead up getting to here so I’m grateful for the opportunity to just be able to welcome kids back safety again.”
Glazier said the board is grateful for parents’ understanding and flexibility this year.
“We know it’s been challenging for everyone as we start to come back to the school year but I’ve really appreciated the way in which people have supported us as we reopen our schools,” he said.
Before students attend school each morning, the board is encouraging parents to screen their child to ensure they are feeling well. If there is uncertainty parents are asked to keep their child at home.
Once at school, what happens largely depends on the school and what the principal has decided.
Glazier said students who are walking or being dropped off by parents are encouraged to arrive as close to the bell time as possible so they can go directly to their class.
Depending on the school all students may go directly to their class like an inclement weather day or they may go to a designated area in the school yard they will share with other students in their cohort.
This is an advantage for many schools in Wellington County.
“We’re a school of 243, about 17 per cent are online, so at the end of the day I’ve got a little less than 200 that are on the yard and over a five or six acre footprint we’re able to social distance pretty well so the kids can spread out and still enjoy recess outside,” Butts said.
And schools have worked out ways to maintain physical distancing as much as possible when students enter at the beginning of the day, very similar to when families are out grocery shopping or in other public spaces, Glazier said.
“As they come into the classrooms we’ve been really focusing on hand hygiene so we have hand sanitizers within our classrooms and our hallways so that students can make sure that their hands are clean as they come in,” he said. “We know that that’s an important part of reducing the possible transmission of the virus.”
Teachers have been taking their students through the different scenarios when they arrive at school, so everyone knows what to expect throughout the year.
At dismissal, Glazier said students in elementary and high schools would be leaving at staggered times so there is a controlled exit.
WCDSB students from Grades 1 to 12 are required to wear a face covering when in the school building, while junior and senior kindergarten students are strongly encouraged to do so.
In the first week, Butts said he’s surprised he hasn’t had more trouble with students not wanting to wear their masks.
“It’s something they’ll grow into,” he said. “Some of the kids are up on the latest little mask carrier.
“They have different fanny packs or whatever and they kind of embrace that.”
Some kids even forget to take them off when they get outside.
“I get some kids that are proud to have a mask of a certain colour or theme that they want to show to their friends,” Butts said. “And they’re wearing it and they said ‘oh yeah I forgot I get to take it off,’ and then they tuck it away in their fanny pack or whatever.”
Schools are also working in more outside education time this year.
“They get a break from their mask outside because they can social distance … and they can play with their cohorts and the health unit says give the kids a break when they go out for recess,” Butts explained.
He gives a lot of credit to the students for how smoothly the start of the school year has gone.
“They all kind of embrace it because I think they know that this is what we have to do,” he said. “Being guided by science and rooted in faith you believe that an informed decision is a good decision and we keep doing our very best with the information that we have to make good decisions …
“We’re very blessed to have the guidance of our senior admin and our public health and stakeholders that have helped us put this plan all together.”
To help schools develop outdoor education the board has hired a facilitator who is helping staff learn how to encourage children to play outside and take advantage of the natural environment.
“It’s also a great opportunity for learning when we incorporate the curriculum with the outdoors,” Glazier said.
“It’s taken a bit of a re-imagining of how we typically would have done our school day and required some flexibility and creative problem solving and just general adherence to the public health guidelines that have been provided,” Glazier said.
As the weather gets cooler, Glazier said schools have been working through what to do with snow boots and snowsuits.
In high schools, lockers are not available to students. They’re asked to bring just the necessities to school and keep their backpacks and coats in their classroom.
In elementary schools staff are working through routines where physical distancing is possible.
Apart from public health practices students must adhere to personally, the school environment will look a little different, too.
While collaborative learning and desk groupings were common in the past, Glazier said desks are now most likely set up in more of a traditional format with seats in rows facing the front as per ministry and public health guidelines.
Another difference is that volunteers will no longer be able to help out at the school as no non-essential visitors are permitted to enter.
“Our focus really in our classroom has been trying to make a fun and engaging place for our students to learn,” Glazier said. “We’re all adapting to this new environment and people are coming up with creative ways to make the learning environment fun and engaging.”
For those interested in learning more about what a school day could look like for elementary students, Butts and the staff at St. John Brebeuf put together a video for students at https://bit.ly/2FwrXhL.
All students will be in class at WCDSB elementary and secondary schools by the end of the week.