The Chinook School Division has started with preparations for students to return to class in the fall after several months of supplemental learning at home.
Schools in Saskatchewan have been closed since March 20, when in-class learning was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The provincial government recently announced that classroom learning for prekindergarten to Grade 12 schools will resume in the fall. The Saskatchewan governments released an eight-page guideline document on June 18 to assist school divisions with the preparations to reopen schools in accordance with public health measures to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection.
Kyle McIntyre, the Chinook School Division’s director of education, felt satisfied with the supplemental learning at home over a period of 11 weeks and he said the school division will be ready for the return of students to classrooms on Sept. 3.
“Our teachers worked extremely hard, providing learning opportunities for children that were interested,” he said about the school division’s supplemental learning plan. “Our families really were super engaged and performed to the best of their abilities to support that learning at home, but I think at the end of the day everyone realizes the very best situation for learning is to have students in a school in front of a teacher.”
A large number of students were engaged in supplemental learning at home during March and April, but those numbers started to drop with the arrival of warmer weather. He felt the supplemental learning was as successful as it could have been, even though it was not an ideal situation.
“Initially we had about 92 per cent of all of our students across our division engaged in supplemental learning,” he said. “As the summer and warmer weather approached, the interest and enthusiasm probably diminished a little bit, but that would be normal in a normal school year and normal classroom conditions. It does get a little more difficult to motivate children when May and June roll along.”
The division and school teams will work on plans to address any learning gaps from the period of supplemental learning at home.
“We're building plans with our teachers this spring and in the fall to develop strategies for determining what students know, determining what they don't know, and determining how we're going to help fill some of the potential gaps that they have,” he said.
He expected there will be a typical learning continuum in classrooms when students return in the fall, which will not be too different from the usual summer lag.
“You're going to have the kids that maybe struggled to meet the learning outcomes, you're going to have the kids that will have some of the learning outcomes, and you're going to have some kids that have accomplished all of the learning outcomes at their own pace,” he said.
The school division received feedback from parents through recent surveys, which indicated some of the limitations of the supplemental learning at home phase. Parents felt supplemental learning was something that worked well in the situation created by the pandemic, but it was difficult for them to balance their work and other responsibilities with learning supervision.
“Parents also though supplemental learning was great on the short term, but would not want to do it on a long-term basis,” he said. “Both parents and staff identified that learning in school is probably the best place for children and for teachers, and the relationships and the connections that staff make with students is extremely important and that cannot always be replicated at home.”
The survey findings indicated most parents will be comfortable with the return of students to school in the fall on condition that there are increased protective and hygienic measures in place.
“We had our teachers come back to schools on June 15, because we thought it was important socially and psychologically to prepare for returning to school and for some of the heightened sanitization measures,” he said. “I think our teachers are ready for students to come back.”
The Chinook School Division will adhere to the provincial guidelines with regard to cleaning and sanitation procedures and measures to limit physical contact during the school day.
Their intention is to implement these extra cleaning and physical distancing measures without causing significant disruptions to learning activities in schools.
“Basically our approach is that everyone is going to help out minimally, whether that will be students or whether it will be teachers or whether it will be our support staff, but a large part of this is going to fall on our facility maintenance and custodial staff,” he said.
Measures such as the staggering of recess times and class transitions or the reconfiguration of classrooms and space within buildings will be implemented in schools, but the details will look different for each location.
“We have 62 different schools, we have 62 different physical plans,” he said. “So there are some practices and some procedures that we recommend for every single school. Of course, the amount of square footage in a school and the number of students will dictate what has to be done. So we won't see an alteration of the school day. School will still start and end at the same time.”
An important requirement that will be rigorously implemented is that students and staff must stay at home if they feel sick or have any symptoms.
“Certainly, we're working on a contingency plan for sub teachers, because if people are sick, we don't want children at school if they're sick and we certainly don't want our staff at school if they're sick,” he said.
The school division will also implement the provincial guidelines for additional cleaning and sanitation of school buses. This might have an impact on the operation of some of the bus routes in Swift Current, where the buses do double runs. The additional cleaning procedures might have an impact on bus schedules.
“We're going to implement those measures to ensure the health and safety of kids and our staff, and it's something we have to do if we want to continue to use our buses to transport children,” he said. “However, we will also be recommending to families, if you are able to drive your child to school, we would prefer that.”
The Chinook School Division experienced some operational savings due to the closure of schools since March. These savings were due to reduced use of buses, lower building operating expenses and lower expenses on salaries for substitute teachers.
An interim financial report presented at the Chinook board meeting on June 22 indicated the forecasted savings due to the pandemic will be $1.3 million. The implementation of the guidelines for the reopening of schools in the fall will result in additional expenses on cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment for staff.
The school division has allocated $150,000 of the COVID savings to these additional expenses and another $178,000 will be kept in reserve for additional supplies. The remaining savings from the pandemic school closures will be used for other purposes, including a bus purchase and the purchase of Chromebooks.
McIntyre emphasized the most important thing for parents to remember is to not send their children to school if they are sick.
“The biggest thing is to please keep your children home if they're sick,” he said. “If you have questions, please let us know. We have put a tremendous amount of work in planning for the safe return of our students and staff, and we're very hopeful that we won't have to deal with a second wave here in the fall.”