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School boards making major preparations for return to class

Last Updated Jul 23, 2020 at 4:20 pm MST

Rear view of large group of students raising their arms to answer the question on a class at elementary school. (CREDIT: iStock @rdmbc)

CALGARY (660 NEWS) — Many Albertans still have questions about what the return to class will look like once school is back in session this fall.

School boards are working to try and answer those questions as quickly as possible, as they also work on acquiring any necessary equipment or upgrades to ensure the safety of staff and students.”We’ve got really tight project timelines,” said Joanne Pitman, Superintendent of School Improvement at the Calgary Board of Education (CBE).

At the public school board, they are purchasing plexiglass that can be installed in some situations — such as principal offices — where there is interaction between staff and people not attending the school.

Safety equipment like masks and face shields are also being purchased and will be made available for all staff, with the CBE looking to have at least two masks given to every single teacher.

Similar actions are being taken by the Calgary Catholic School District (CSSD), as they are also considering making masks mandatory in some limited situations.

“In our high schools and on transportation,” said Chief Superintendent Dr. Bryan Szumlas. “These are some of the things that we will be having conversations (about) and continuing to monitor.”

Overall, these methods will require a fair amount of money as well, and proper communication is needed to keep everyone in the loop.

“It is a challenge that we are working hard to overcome, because we also need to communicate with all of our employees and ensure they are aware,” said Pitman.

In addition, the CBE will be requiring mandatory seating plans for all schools, as a way to help with contact tracing efforts in the event of any infections.

“Knowing where every student is at each time in the day will be critical,” she said.

Once students and teachers get into the schools, the daily routine will be quite a bit different than how it was pre-pandemic starting with hand sanitizing stations throughout and limited student movement.

At this time, the two boards are approaching physical distancing and student movement in slightly different ways but with the same goal in mind.

“Each individual school will have variations,” said Pitman.

“High schools are a great example of some of the complications that certainly can require additional thought.”

The CBE will do everything possible to maximize space between students — such as adjusting the placement of desks as suggested by Education Minister Adriana LaGrange — but also they are thinking of how to limit the number of people in hallways at any given time.

They may be staggering class times or even having teachers move between classes rather than students, so cohort groups stay in a single place through the day.

“It cannot be everyone out in the hallway at the same time during a class transition,” she said.The CSSD is also looking at staggered class times, but inside the classroom, he acknowledged it will be difficult to consistently keep everyone at least two metres apart. Szumlas said they have some flexibility as the province indicated that two meters is the requirement only when it is possible, and otherwise it is more about trying to get the maximum distance.

“In a classroom of 30 students, that distance may be half a metre. We’re not sure. Every class is going to be different based on the size, the footprint of that space.”

Szumlas added that they also had some model schools over the summer to test out various practices, and it has been successful. This included having objects like pylons in hallways to help direct students, and experimenting with the staggered schedule.

Classes themselves may be different in some situations, too, with gym and music classes requiring some necessary changes.

For physical education, Pitman said they have to take a close look at games that require shared equipment and if it is possible to keep everything clean.

“It would be less of a communal approach, I would say,” she said.

Minister LaGrange said during her announcement this week that music classes may have to move away from wind instruments, suggesting instead that students learn string instruments. Pitman would not go that far, and is hopeful students can still play the instrument of their choice or sing if they want, but there will have to be some adjustments around how that is tackled.

“We are committed to maintaining, wherever possible, effective music programming,” she said.

“Perhaps they are doing their own individual recording of their singing or progression and receiving feedback from their teacher, separate from being in front or collectively within a choir.”

So while many kinks still need to be ironed out, Pitman and Szumlas want to assure parents, students and staff that there will be constant communication with everyone and adjustments made as they are required. In the case of the CBE, Pitman promised there will be weekly communications sent out to parents to keep them up to date.

In the event of any outbreaks, the boards are confident in protocols set in place by the provincial government to tamp them down and there will be stopgaps to assist with the loss of staff.

Both boards want everyone to know that if they have concerns, they should come forward and feel comfortable that their views will be heard loud and clear.