bc school restart covid cowichan
Cowichan students will return to school next week in extraordinary circumstances. Photo by David Minkow/The Discourse
Cowichan Valley

Your school restart questions, answered

Cowichan Valley School District board chair Candace Spilsbury addresses reader questions.

Last Wednesday, the Cowichan Valley School District released its much-anticipated restart plan.

Because we knew there would be so many questions about the plan and its imminent implementation, we decided to give you an opportunity to ask your questions directly to the district.

Thanks to all the students, parents, teachers and other community members for sending in your questions. And thanks to SD79 board chair Candace Spilsbury for answering the questions during an interview last Friday. 

candace spilsbury Cowichan valley school district
Candace Spilsbury is the chair of the Cowichan Valley School District board. Photo submitted by Candace Spilsbury

How will students catch up?

Dominic Fagan, Grade 12 student: “How are we going to catch up on content we missed last year? For example, in my pre-calculus 12 class, we didn’t even make it halfway through the course content, so next year, when I’m taking calculus 12, I won’t have the foundation in math needed for the course. What are teachers going to do about it and will it affect students in the future for university or other post-secondary education?”

Candace Spilsbury: “We are all aware that some instruction this year will begin with a past outcome catch-up, so that we bring all the students up to the level of the curriculum prior to beginning this year’s curriculum. Yes, it will be intense, but I think we all need to know that that is what is going to happen in our schools this year because we know we lost a bit of that curriculum through the last few months of school last year. So, we understand and are ready for that accommodation.”

Will students get enough classroom time?

Leslie McGee, parent: “How is the district going to ensure the students meet the minimum hours required by the ministry? The minimum hours for grades 8-12 are 952. The current school calendar allows for 953. By starting two days late, never mind potential snow days, we by no means have our children in class for the required time. A concern, as a term was essentially lost last spring.”

Candace Spilsbury: “The school district is following the Ministry of Education regulations, which include instructional time. We will have our school and our programs open for the amount of time that is designated from the Ministry of Education. So we feel there is no issue for us around meeting the instructional time requirements. It [the number of hours required] may change, but that will be up to the ministry; we will follow whatever stipulations they create for school districts to operate under.”

How will kids with special needs be supported?

Cynthia Lockrey, parent: “How will kids with special needs be supported during this transition and new normal when the supports in school are less this year than last? Our school has less [educational assistants], less resource teacher hours, less librarian hours and less SLP [speech-language pathologists]. Yet kids with special needs are falling further behind and classroom teachers now have COVID protocols to worry about.”

Candace Spilsbury: “The first thing I would advise is for this parent to be in contact with the principal, because it is our expectation as a board of education that there is sufficient staffing assigned to each of our schools to accommodate all of our students in that school, including students with special needs. We are very attentive to students who require additional support. Each of them have individual education plans with specified responsibilities for staff and for outcomes. We will follow through on those plans as we have in the past, even though we will be doing it differently. … Our health and safety protocols are our No. 1 priority because we do not want any of our students or staff or community members to be affected by COVID-19. So, yes, we will be following the health and safety protocols to the maximum, but also yes, we will be providing each and every student in our school, including those with special needs, the program that they need to be educated with quality, and with their future in mind.”

What if kids have to miss weeks of school?

Sadie Bartram, parent: “I wonder about the quarter system for the high schools and what kind of supports kids will have if they are sick or have to self isolate, as with 10 weeks per course, if they have to miss two weeks, that is a considerable chunk of time. How will students complete their necessary work, especially labs and tests? What policies are in place for if other members of your family are sick? Do you also have to stay home or can you still attend school?” 

Candace Spilsbury: “Each case is so unique that it would really be a question of the medical health resource that is working with that child, that school and that family to determine when a child is unable to attend school, what implications there are for education. We have a hospital homebound instruction program that provides for students who have a medical reason not to be attending school, and that would click in almost immediately as soon as the teacher was able to add that student to their caseload (what I’m talking about is a few days not a few months). That student would be added there and there would be a way to work with that hospital homebound teacher through any requirements, such as the lab requirements that are mentioned. This is such a unique time. It’s extending our thinking around issues such as the illness that is in this question, but we have the resources, we have the abilities to respond. … I would rather leave that [the question of students exposed to sick family members] to medical health people to answer, because the amount of the illness in the family would have to be considered, the number of people, the contacts they have. It’s not a simple one-word answer for every case. It’s very individualized.”

Will whole cohorts need to self-isolate together?

Julieta Harris, parent: How will the district deal with illness within the cohort of 30 kids? Like, for our kids in high school, let’s say one kid gets sick, the whole class who was exposed should isolate for 14 days. So how are we going to continue classes in those two weeks? And what if someone else falls ill and then it turns int a month, etc? How is the district going to respond to the increased demand on online learning?”

Candace Spilsbury: “We will respond in whatever way we need to to online learning. We have a procedure around if a child is ill. First of all, they’re not to come to school, but if somehow they do get to the school, they would be immediately isolated. The medical health officer would be called and would determine what our actions need to be, and we will follow them 100 per cent, because we want all of our kids safe and healthy. So we will do whatever it takes to make sure that happens.”

How will students with diverse needs be supported?

Christine Fagan, parent: “How will students be supported to succeed to their full potential? Of special concern to me are the opposing ends of the spectrum – one being newcomers with limited English, no literacy support at home, and very minimal (if any) communication between teachers/support staff and parents, as in the case of my Syrian friends; the other being those who find academics easy – those who are able to handle the course load but are rarely challenged or given any guidance on how to add additional courses at the school or to access outside resources like distance education.”

Candace Spilsbury: “The schools and our school district have always faced these kinds of diversity within our school, and we have always accommodated special programs, both for students who have English as a second language needs, and we have a large program that provides specialized instruction for those students who are gifted. … So, this issue has not changed for us during this pandemic. We have always had unique needs and we have always tried our hardest to meet any of those needs within our school.”

How will teachers with special health concerns be accommodated?

Wilma Millette, retired elementary teacher: “What adaptations or options are there for teachers with underlying health risks?” 

Candace Spilsbury: “There are accommodations that are being made case by case and that teacher would be contacting our district human resources staff and working with the educational staff as well at the district level and sometimes at the provincial level. Any accommodations that the teacher requires are worked out.”

How will teachers’ life outside of work be potentially impacted?

Kristi Koons, teacher at Quamichan School: “How will having a student in our ‘cohort’ test positive for COVID affect our out-of-school life? Will we as teachers need to isolate? Will our family members at home need to isolate? Will it affect our family members’ livelihood, place of business? Will their contacts need to isolate? Will we all then get tested as well? In a nutshell, I want to know how my job and the bigger risks I’m taking with no masks and no physical distancing will affect those that I live with.”

Candace Spilsbury: “Masks are voluntary so if anyone in our schools, any teacher, any student wishes to wear a mask full time that is welcome. The second thing though is more around medical health procedures and I really can’t respond at this point. Again, it’s individual circumstances that will determine what needs to happen. And so perhaps this person would like to get in touch with our medical health people because they could provide more clarity than I can. … I believe they [teachers] can call in to the medical health line. As well they can contact our chief medical health officer, Dr. Shannon Waters. …  As well, we have a health and safety officer in our school district, who is extremely knowledgeable.”

Will support staff potentially face more exposure?

Jessica Erickson, parent and support staff:  “Why is nothing in place for casual support staff and teachers to prevent them from being in different schools and classrooms each day? As a parent, I worry about who will be working with my children and where they were prior to being with my children. As support staff, potentially on call, I worry that the potential exposure level to myself and my family will be dramatically increased.”

Candace Spilsbury: “That’s a concern on behalf of the district as well around the number of people who are making contact with our cohort groups. And so we’re still looking at design on how to make that happen, so that our staff that overlay different groups of children are still as safe as possible. Right now, the main strategy that we have been given is to have what is called physical distancing, which means that they are within that six-feet parameter for any kind of contact, and I believe will also be wearing masks … unless the support staff is determined to be in a cohort.”

Will there be enough cleaning staff?

Naomi Nilsson, president of Cowichan Valley Teachers’ Union: “Why has the number of janitorial positions not been increased in our district? In June we had bus drivers coming in on overtime to do a midday wipe down high touch surfaces in areas outside of classrooms. We have filled those overtime spots with 9.4 FTE [full-time equivalent] custodians. However, we believe that this is still not enough, especially as teachers prepare to welcome back 70 per cent more students than we had in June. Other districts near to us have day-time custodial, why was that not a model considered here?”

Candace Spilsbury: “Every model was considered in our district as to how best to provide additional cleaning within our schools and classes. … The model that we used in June worked for everyone in terms of the sanitation and cleaning. And yes we did hire additional 9.4 new custodial positions to support the new health and safety protocols. … We just need to be flexible enough to be able to change as we go. If we need to look at a different way of doing things, then we will.” 

Will the cleaning products be safe?

Kate Hutchins, parent: “We are wondering about the chemicals they will be using on all surfaces in schools. Will they have cancer-causing agents in them or respiratory toxins? There are many that do.” 

Candace Spilsbury: “No. I can explain that this is not acceptable. The cleaning supplies are also reviewed through the jurisdictions that are overseeing all of this and they come from the medical and the workspace protocols. … We are buying the same products as all the other school districts that are the best to deal with sanitation and safety.”

What happens if there’s another shutdown?

Kate Khan, parent: “Has this year’s curriculum been streamlined for the teachers and children to be easily adaptable in case of another shutdown? Last year was challenging to try and keep up with all the different apps and ways of recording learning that each teacher was using. I hope for all our sakes (including our fantastic teachers’) that there is a simplified plan should that happen.”

Candace Spilsbury: There is a plan around the number of hours of students that attend school in each one of the stages. For example, if we have to pull back to Stage 3, then it would look like last June. There is no kind of overall modified plan or consistent plan for the use of technology as described. But what we do know is we’re not asking teachers to be both classroom and remote learning teachers in Stage 2. … Any of our online kinds of programs will be offered by different staff.

Why won’t masks be required in classrooms?

Sharon Jackson, grandparent: “How on earth does adding 60 kids and their families to our small five-person bubble keep us safe? Why are they not insisting on masks in the classrooms? After the kids start school, it means either I can no longer see them, and I will be utterly isolated from my family, or when I do see them, we will all have to be wearing masks.” 

Candace Spilsbury: “I would refer this question to the medical people. The cohort sizes and how they work was all designed by Dr. Bonnie Henry and her staff in the medical field. So we are not questioning it. We are trusting that she has an understanding of what is best around health and safety protocol, and we will be following that. … We are trying to fully support provincial health requests as to our operations and our procedures. And the provincial direction is not to require masks other than through what is considered high numbers and uncontrolled environments, like within our hallways and on buses.”

Will the district consider smaller class sizes?

The Discourse: “A couple of people asked about the possibility of reducing class sizes to make social distancing a possibility in the classroom?”

Candace Spilsbury: “We have the parameters around 60 students as a cohort in elementary and middle school, and 120 in secondary and so we are following that model. We are trying to stagger some situations like school starting [times], when lunches occur and those kinds of things. … One of the things that we have encouraged is outdoor education because that provides a much greater space and a much more healthy environment for people in general.”

Is registration limited for alternative programs?

The Discourse: “A reader asked about the new programs – the Inquisitive Design and Technology Program and Mill Bay Blended Learning Clans that were announced in the restart plan. Are there registration limits for those as well as for The Grove?”

Candace Spilsbury: “There will be initial limits because of staffing required. But as numbers grow, then we will just adjust our teaching staff to be where the students need to be. … We will try to work out options for every one of our children and their families. That’s the bottom line for us. We want the children to come back. We know that instruction by a teacher is going to provide the best quality education for the child. We know that children learn best socially with others – and also for mental health, we need each other. … Please register with us. We will work it out. Whatever program you feel is best for your child, we will try our hardest to accommodate that.”