Classrooms are buzzing as thousands of students in London, Ont., returned to school this week in the midst of sweltering heat.
Students in the Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB) and the London District Catholic School Board (LDCSB) returned to classes on Wednesday, as London’s French-language boards, including the Conseil scolaire Viamonde and Conseil scolaire catholique, began on Tuesday.
For those at Forest City Public School, formerly F.D. Roosevelt Public School, Wednesday also marked the first year with its new name.
TVDSB trustees supported changing the name of the east London school at a board meeting in March as a result of a broad review of all schools named after individuals following a report from the school name review committee.
The school board said the school was renamed because of “F.D. Roosevelt’s historical connection to racism and controversial approach to Jewish refugees during the Holocaust, which are inconsistent with the school board’s values and commitments to human rights and equity.”
Barb McAllister, principal at Forest City Public School, said the school is starting to feel like “a new home.”
“We have a new logo, new colours; there’s so many new things in our building. We even got renovated this summer,” she said. “It just feels like a fresh start.”
According to McAllister, some classrooms and bathrooms in the school were remodelled as part of recent renovations, and there is a new sign outside the school.
“We are just so happy to have our students back and joining us here at Forest City and we are looking forward to a great partnership with our families throughout the year,” she added.
While speaking about recent renovations, Thames Valley said it’s working on HVAC upgrades to eight more elementary schools this year.
The announcement comes as the region remains under a heat warning, with temperatures expected to feel anywhere between 35 and 40 with the humidex in some areas.
“Traditionally, we were always worried about extreme cold. Now our biggest concern in June and September is those over 30-degree days,” said Mark Fisher, TVDSB director of education, adding that “every new portable added to schools comes with air conditioning.”
The TVDSB confirmed in an email to Global News that 94 schools across the board have 100 per cent air conditioning, 118 schools have 50 per cent air conditioning and 141 schools have some air conditioning.
With the anticipated HVAC upgrades for this year, the total number of schools with full air conditioning is expected to rise to 102.
The LDCSB also wrote in a statement to Global News that as of September, 89 per cent of all classroom spaces are air-conditioned, marking one of the highest rates in Ontario.
“Our intent is for 100 per cent of all classrooms to have full air conditioning within next 2-3 years,” a spokesperson said.
Fisher added that TVDSB is also “in the process of upgrading a number of our facilities and trying to put air conditioning wherever possible, because we want kids to be comfortable when they’re learning.”
Heading into her first day of Grade 8, Janai Fergeson told Global News she couldn’t be more excited.
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“I get to see my friends again, I love my teacher, and I’m just excited for school,” she said.
With aspirations of becoming a chef, Fergeson added a message to her fellow students as they head into a new school year.
“Just keep going. Don’t give up,” she said. “The schoolwork is going to get hard, but it’ll be a fun year.”
Grade 3 student Benjimen Duncan also expressed his excitement for the school season ahead, saying he is especially looking forward to his music and gym classes.
“I’m feeling good, a little nervous but still excited to be back,” he said.
According to the TVDSB, while official enrolment numbers are not available until mid-November, the school board reported that it’s currently approaching 85,000 students.
Fisher told Global News that “after 10 years of a steady decline, this is the fifth year of consecutive growth.”
“We’ve gained over 6,000 students in the last four years,” he said.
The school board said Thames Valley is now the fourth-largest school board in Ontario, the largest outside of the GTA region and one of the top 10 in Canada, with regard to student enrolment rates.
However, despite rapid growth across the school board, McAllister said enrolment levels at Forest City Public School have not changed.
“We’re kind of in an area where we can’t grow as much so our enrolment has actually stayed the same as last year,” she told Global News.
Fisher added that on top of the influx of incoming students, the school board is also recording more than 14,000 employees.
“We’ve been predicting this growth for a couple of years, so we have really been out there trying to attract and make sure that TVDSB is the employer of choice in the area. But we still have a lot of openings,” he said.
In dealing with the rising number of students across the school board, Fisher also said a number of portables have been added to local schools.
“The reality is that in order for us to keep up with this rapid pace of enrolment, we have to use portables as a temporary measure until we can work effectively to redistribute the populations and apply for new schools,” he said.
He added that the school board is currently in the process of developing four new schools across the region.
“We have a new school that’s been approved in Woodstock, Belmont, northwest London and another one in southwest London, with an addition also happening at Eagle Heights Public School,” Fisher said. “We are going to be putting in applications for another six to eight new schools and hopefully we’ll get approval from the ministry.
“All you have to do is drive around the city and you can see the kids are here, the people are here. It’s a really vibrant place to be. But we also need those approvals to keep up with that growth,” he added.
Fisher also explained that with a new school year officially underway, enrolment caps are also present among a couple of schools in Thames Valley.
“We are in a situation with a couple of our schools where we’ve had to cap enrolment and then bus those students to a nearby school. We may be in a situation to do that in another few schools in the next few months, but we will certainly keep the public aware if and when those decisions happen,” he said.
In light of the new school year ahead, Fisher said there are also a number of programs and projects in the works that are centred around improving student achievement.
“What we really need to do to make sure that every single student in our district is going to be able to read by the time they leave Grade 3, we have a renewed focus on numeracy, (and) we know kids need to be able to solve problems, so we’re anxious to dig into that work as well,” he said.
Fisher added that the renaming of the former F.D. Roosevelt Public School represents a “refresh and rebrand” across the board.
“It’s something exciting. This is the Forest City. I think they did a really great job with the selection of the name,” he said.
And for all those parents going through some “first-day jitters” in sending their kids back to school, local parent Kevin Battson said it all gets better with time.
“Stay calm. They’re going to be fine and they’re in good hands,” he told Global News. “I know you’re probably feeling that separation anxiety, but it’ll be all right.”
The TVDSB is also focusing on building relationships and connections within schools, especially during those first three days back.