The sound of laughter, quick footsteps and happy chatter filled the halls of schools across the province again on Tuesday. Students returned to school for another year of learning — and fun — but that doesn’t mean the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has been forgotten.
All staff, students from Grades 4 to 12 and visitors must wear masks indoors and staff and students must complete a daily health checklist before coming to school, according to the Sooke School District website. But unlike last year, students won’t be organized into cohorts or learning groups and sports and extracurricular activities will return in alignment with public health orders.
A report from the Royal Society of Canada concluded that disruptions in schooling for children during the COVID-19 pandemic had major consequences on their health and well-being, affecting “virtually all aspects of child development.”
With this year’s return to school, The Discourse caught up with Sooke School District board chair Ravi Parmar and Millstream Elementary School’s principal Francis Krusekopf to learn about COVID-19 safety and how the school district has supported and will continue to support students.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What does it feel like returning to in-person learning?
Krusekopf: It feels familiar because we were in-person last year so I think we had the opportunity to practice many things last year that were new to us and this year we’re coming back and carrying on with those and it feels, for the most part, really comfortable.
Parmar: At the elementary school level and through all of our schools [students] Grade 4 and up have to wear masks indoors and from Kindergarten to Grade 3 it’s recommended. There’s lots of excitement throughout the district and a little bit of jitters not only just returning to the school year but COVID-19 is still among us and staff, students and families are very cautious about that but certainly we can assure them we’re following all the safety protocols the Ministry of Education have provided to us.
Krusekopf: We’ve just started today but children have come with their masks, staff are wearing masks and you will notice some younger students who also have masks on.
How do you think being able to come to school — and the consistency of it — is helping students get through this really unusual time?
Krusekopf: You’re right to say there’s consistency. It’s something as simple as our bell schedule. The children hear the bell and know they’re moving into recess. There’s a timetable, a schedule, things that happen out of tradition in a school. The majority of what we’re doing, especially at the elementary level, is similar to what we always do. And I’d say the other piece that’s helpful during COVID-19 is we provide a lot of support to families and to children so I think we recognize what we’ve always known, which is that school provided education but we also focus on supporting children and families with their emotional needs and we do that by collaborating with other agencies and providing supports and resources. Sometimes that looks like counselling or helping a family access support like finding a doctor. Being able to do those pieces during COVID-19 is really important.
Parmar: I think that social and emotional connection was heavily being missed. Overwhelmingly I heard about [students] missing that social connection, whether it’s seeing your friends first thing in the morning or throughout the class. This pandemic has truly shown us the importance of public education.
Do you have an estimate as to how much the school district has grown this year?
Parmar: We’ll probably get more updated numbers before the end of the month but I’m predicting this is going to be a record year in terms of enrolment. Wherever you look in the West Shore and Sooke region there’s new developments coming up all the time. And I think that’s one thing that’s been unique for us where we’ve seen a lot more apartments and condo buildings and initially we thought maybe those wouldn’t be filled with young families and students but that’s certainly been the complete opposite. We’re seeing lots of records being broken. But we have two new schools under construction that will be opening next year and hopefully we’ll be hearing news of future schools.
What message do you have for parents and students?
Krusekopf: For parents I would say that we’re working really hard as a staff to keep schools safe and healthy and we want to be able to welcome their children to school every day knowing the environment is healthy and safe. For children I would say — I love the sound of children in the school. I’ve been here getting ready with staff over the last couple of weeks and to be in an elementary school building that is quiet always seems unusual and not quite right so I’m just super excited to have the children back here again and to hear their voices.
Parmar: I’d agree. It’s great to be back and working towards that sense of normalcy. If there’s one ask I would have it would be for families to remember to slow down when driving in a school zone and I ask families to remember that if you see a bus that’s dropping off kids or picking them up in the morning to ensure you’re not passing them, especially when that arm is out.