Chinook division address issues

The Student Services program of the Chinook School Division has been providing support services to students and parents while home learning takes place during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Superintendent of Learning Bob Vavra presented the Student Services monitoring report to trustees during a regular Chinook School Division board meeting, June 8.

The meeting took place at the Chinook Education Centre in Swift Current, but guests or media could not attend due to the present public health restrictions on the size of indoor public gatherings. Vavra therefore spoke to the Prairie Post about his report during a telephone interview, June 10.

He felt the ability of Student Services to deal with the COVID-19 situation and to continue to meet the needs of students while they were learning from home is an important highlight from the program’s activities during the past year.

“It is a big shift, because Student Services deals with the students that need more support than most other students,” he said. “A lot of time that's done face to face, and what we had to do was to shift our thinking a little bit and we moved to a lot of online support. We created websites and resources for both parents and students, and we also connected with each Student Services teacher about the plans for those intensive needs kids.”

The purpose of the Student Services program is to provide specialized services to students who need more assistance than what is available in classrooms. In some instances, the support to students during the pandemic took place through personal visits in an outside location.

“It's challenging working within the social distancing environment, but in some cases we did go to alternative locations outside the school buildings and maintained that safe distance to provide supports to those children and to provide respite opportunities to the parents,” he said.

Student Services provided specialized supports to 140 students during the regular 2019-20 school year before the pandemic. These supports continued since the start of the public health restrictions in March, and supports were also provided to other students who struggled to adjust to the new situation.

“This was an anxious time for lots of students,” he said. “We did have a little bit of time before the shutdown was coming. Our counsellors connected with a lot of students who were experiencing anxiety or issues with the COVID situation or other situations in their life. So we made those connections, and our counsellors continued to check in and have counselling sessions with those students, either online or on the phone over the last 16 weeks.”

Student Services also helped to connect students to other organizations such at Mental Health, The Centre and Fresh Start, which will provide counselling support during the summer.

“Our community partners are very supportive and willing to take on some mental health supports for students, but also for families as well, if families need some support there,” he said. “So we will be referring some our students and families to that. It's voluntary, they can take part in that, and we're also looking at a summer program for literacy supports with the United Way, but we haven't finalized it yet.”

Student Services was even able to continue a nutrition program during the home learning phase after the start of the pandemic.

“We provide nutrition support to approximately 150 students in the division on an ongoing basis,” Vavra said. “We wanted to make sure we had the opportunity to do that with students as they work from home, and so with our transportation system we arranged to have packages for families that wished to participate in that, because we didn't want to take that away from students and families as they moved to the learning at home.”

The participation was less than the 150 students who received nutrition support when they attended school before the pandemic. He felt this was probably due to the fact that several other community groups started food programs to support families during the pandemic.

“So the demand wasn't what we thought it would be, but there are still definitely some families that are participating and getting nutrition programs supplied from Chinook,” he said.

The Student Services program was able to continue with the annual planning process for students, even though the pandemic disrupted the regular planning format.

“The planning process for those students starts in the spring, and it involves connecting with parents and teachers and specialists to map out what the learning plan will be for the next year,” he said. “So we did that in a digital environment. We did that through phone calls to parents, through webinars to parents and through webinars from different locations to centralized teams that would support that process, and we're happy how that went.”

Another highlight during the past year was the hiring of an experienced behaviour coach to provide supports to students who experience barriers to learning. 

“She has been supporting over 40 students directly this year along with families and teachers, and that has really helped with some of the barriers to learning that these students experience,” he said. “So that has been a very positive thing for our Students Service team this year. Also, we've worked with some outside agencies such as Fresh Start to support learners that have different needs. It's beneficial to have them in an environment that's a little bit different than a traditional schooling environment.”

The Student Services program has evolved to become more systematic to support student needs and it will continue to adjust to use technology to work with students and families. Vavra said they have tried to install checkpoints and screens at different levels, for example there are speech and language screens and hearing tests for all students in kindergarten. There are screens at Grade 3 and Grade 9 for psychological educational assessments.

“We see which students may benefit from those assessments and then we put plans in place and systems and strategies to improve their learning based on that,” he mentioned. “What we found by being a little bit more systematic and using those screens is we can really narrow the focus and provide supports to the students that really need it.”

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