Thames Valley School Board gearing up to welcome students back to classrooms

Boys and girls sitting at desks, raising hands. Halfpoint Images/Getty Images

With the first two years of learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic in the “rear-view mirror,” the Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB) hopes a more typical and uninterrupted school year will unfold for incoming students.

On Tuesday, trustees held a special board meeting to review their plans with the start to the school year just one week away.

“The focus this year, after two very challenging years, is around connecting with students, with teachers and with the broader community so that people feel safe, connected and ready to learn,” said Mark Fisher, director of education for TVDSB.

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Fisher said the school board is also taking a “layered approach” to health and safety, and while masks will not be mandatory, staff and students are still strongly encouraged to wear them in addition to screening themselves daily for any symptoms of COVID-19.

“We encourage the use of masks, we are passing out masks, we have rapid antigen test kits ready if needed, (and) we’re encouraging staff and students to get vaccinated,” Fisher said.

“We’re getting a new screening tool by the (Education) Ministry hopefully soon,” said Lori Ann Pizzalato, chair of TVDSB, highlighting the multi-million investments made in heating, ventilation and air conditioning (H-VAC) improvements within their schools. “We’ve increased our ventilation, (and) we’ve worked on it all summer.”

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According to Pizzalato, by the first day of classes, at least 90 per cent of schools within the board will have full mechanical ventilation and portable HEPA units in all classrooms.

With regards to new provincial health guidelines surrounding masking, she adds that while the wearing of masks is encouraged, “everyone’s choice should be respected.”

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“That is the message we have for families, for staff, and bullying will not be acceptable,” she said.

Click to play video: 'Should masking be reinstated? The latest COVID-19 update and more'
Should masking be reinstated? The latest COVID-19 update and more

During Tuesday’s special board meeting, issues surrounding ongoing staffing shortages and increasing absences were discussed. It’s something Pizzalato said is on the school boards top of mind for the upcoming school year.

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“I’m hopeful that we won’t have that absenteeism that we had in previous year,” she said. “But we do have a plan that if we do sense that there is high absenteeism, we will work with our health unit.

“If there’s over 30 per cent absenteeism, a letter will go out to our families, but we don’t want to go there,” she continued. “We just want to make sure that we keep schools open. That’s our goal.”

Additionally, provinces across Canada are witnessing an increasing need for school bus drivers ahead of the fall.

“We can’t control what happens,” Pizzalato explained. “We’re just informing parents to make sure they follow STS (Student Transportation Services), download their app, and just keep informed whether they have a bus that time. But we’re hopeful that we have enough bus drivers as well and that’s what STF has said, but you never know.”

Click to play video: 'Back-to-school safety tips for kids heading back to the classroom'
Back-to-school safety tips for kids heading back to the classroom

Riely Culhaine, associate director of education for TVDSB, said that parents and guardians have also been raising concerns about missed factors in their children’s education resulting in pandemic-related gaps.

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“We know that students’ experience over the last couple of years has varied,” he said. “But we are focused on really ensuring that we understand the learning needs of each and every one of our students so that we can respond appropriately and provide them with the support that they need.”

Culhaine referenced TVDSB’s “historically high” 84 per cent graduation rate in 2021, a five per cent increase over the past five years which he says is a result of “individualizing programming for students.”

“We will be taking a similar approach as we welcome students back and really focus on individualizing the program to meet their learning needs,” he said.

– with files from Global News Andrew Graham

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