Okanagan teachers association calls for smaller classes after district records first school exposure

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The North Okanagan Shuswap School District recorded its first COVID-19 school exposure earlier this month.

Interior Health said there was a potential exposure at the Sullivan Campus of Salmon Arm Secondary School on Nov. 17 and 18.

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The notice didn’t come as a surprise to the president of the local teachers association as other school districts in more densely populated areas of B.C. have been dealing with frequent COVID-19 exposure notifications for weeks.

North Okanagan Shuswap Teachers Association president Graham Gomme says he believes COVID-19 precautions and notifications are generally being handled very well in the school district.

However, he’d like to see the district reduce class sizes in high schools which he believes would prevent potential problems by allowing for better physical distancing in classrooms and hallways.

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Gomme said right now some high school classes have 25 to 30 students.

He believes those class sizes can be too large to allow for proper physical distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Some of our schools are pretty crammed and that’s what I’m worried about,” he said.

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Gomme believes one solution to decrease class numbers would be to have high school students attend school in-person every second day and work on assignments at home during days when they aren’t attending class.

Gomme said that system is already in place at Salmon Arm Secondary’s Sullivan Campus, the school where the exposure took place, but he would like to see it adopted at smaller high schools in the district as well.

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“If they are sitting at their desk and they are five or six feet away from the next student then we know that there is very limited exposure there. But if we have 30 kids crammed into a classroom the odds go up,” he said.

The school district’s superintendent, Peter Jory, said the alternating days model at the Sullivan campus was put in place due to the school’s “very unique configuration,” but in general “there is little appetite to have younger students at home unsupervised until such time it is deemed necessary by the province.”

Jory pointed out the district’s plan has been approved by the Ministry of Education and, he said, any changes would also require ministry approval.

The superintendent said the district will only look at changing learning models if there is a shift to a different stage of the province’s framework for opening schools during the pandemic.

This school year schools have been in stage two which has no target for school occupancy levels, but other stages do call for schools to be at 50 per cent or 25 per cent density.

Gomme is also encouraging everyone, including the wider community outside of schools, to follow COVID-19 protocols to help schools weather the second wave.

“I know the school district is working as hard as they can on it and if everybody buys in for the next three, four months we’ll get through it,” Gomme said.

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“We are getting exposed in the community and then it comes into the school … What we need to do is lessen it in the community so it doesn’t come into the school. People need to really work hard in the community.”

Read more: Coronavirus: List of B.C. school exposures

A full list of COVID-19 exposures in B.C. schools is available here.