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London, Ont., area public, Catholic boards shed light on back-to-school plans

A empty hallway is seen at McGee Secondary school in Vancouver,on Sept. 5, 2014.
A empty hallway is seen at McGee Secondary school in Vancouver,on Sept. 5, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

The public and Catholic school boards in the London, Ont., region are both providing more information to parents and guardians as the start of the school year rapidly approaches.

Both boards held meetings Wednesday evening where they went over their prospective back-to-school plans and what steps are being taken to address the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Read more: In person or remote learning? Parents, guardians of TVDSB students must pick by Aug. 18

Mark Fisher, director of education for the Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB), says their meeting lasted five hours.

“Last night we had a public board meeting which basically gave an opportunity for us to share with the broader community what our Return to Learn plan looks like for September. It also gave the community, through the trustees, an opportunity to ask questions and clarifications. We were here for almost five hours going through the details,” he said.

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“This is so new for everybody that there’s just a lot of information that needs to be digested.”

Fisher noted that schools will look very different in the fall compared to before March break, which was the last time students were in class. The board, Fisher says, is taking a “multi-pronged approach” to try to “hit that sweet spot between high-quality education and keeping everyone safe.”

However, for those who choose to keep their kids home this fall, Fisher says the remote learning experience will be “quite different than the emergency distance learning.” Parents and guardians are asked to confirm no later than Aug. 18 whether they are choosing in-school or remote learning.

“I need to be able to align and match teachers with students and subjects with students so we really need that information as soon as possible.”

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Fisher says there will be some periods when parents and guardians can re-assess that choice. For elementary students, children starting the school year remotely can return to school in early November. For secondary school students, the year will be divided into 10-week “quadmesters” instead of semesters and after each quadmester, students will have the option to reassess their learning choice.

Another major item for those in the public board to take note of: the TVDSB will be asking parents and guardians to sign an attestation saying that if their kid shows symptoms of COVID-19 they will stay home from school.

Fisher says the board is always ready to “change our plan and evolve our plan,” which currently also involves extensive cleaning protocols, directional signs, barriers and removing porous surfaces from classrooms. Students will also be divided into different cohorts to limit the number of people they interact with.

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“We know for kids’ mental well-being, it’s really important that they get back to school, they get back to learning, and they have an opportunity to interact with peers and I think that’s really our motivating force here.”

Read more: Coronavirus — Ontario major teachers’ unions allege back-to-school plan breaks provincial law

As for the local Catholic board, director of education Linda Staudt said Wednesday’s board meeting also provided the board with the opportunity to present its plan.

“The questions from the trustees were excellent and they were responding to inquiries that they themselves have received from parents.”

Parents and guardians of students in the Catholic board will have until Aug. 20 to confirm whether their kids will attend school in-person or remotely.

“This morning, all of our families will have received — we use SchoolMessenger, it’s the tool we use to phone/email our parents — they will have received a message from us sharing the plan and a letter outlining that there’s a survey attached and the survey begins today and they have one week,” said Staudt.

“Once they read all of the documents that we presented to them and they read through it, we’re going to be asking them if their child will be returning to in-classroom learning or are they choosing the full remote.”

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Staudt says the London District Catholic School Board (LDCSB) will be following “the same strategies that have worked in the community to bring down the spread of COVID” — like wearing masks, practising physical distancing, and handwashing — which “are the same key strategies that the health officials are telling us to focus on.”

The LDCSB is also crafting cohorts or “bubbles” for students.

“Normally, a student would be able to interact with other students in other classrooms and that’s not going to be the reality. They’re going to be a separate bubble and we’ll do the physical distancing, they’ll see in the morning when they come in there will be a staggered entry, the same thing will happen at lunch and recess.”

Specific recess and lunch plans are still being finalized, but Staudt says it looks like schools “may not have everybody have recess at the same time as they normally would” and they’ll likely be asking students to bring any food they don’t finish at lunch home with them instead of disposing of it at school.

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Other changes include shared items. For example, sand tables in kindergarten classrooms will likely be gone.

“We’re still going to give them a rich learning experience, it’s just some of the ways in which they would have engaged with their fellow classmates will look different.”

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Coronavirus: Ontario school boards will be allowed to use up to $500M in reserve funding for distancing initiatives