Cautious back to school plans

211

Alex Kurial/Local Journalism Initiative

Students in Central Lambton won’t be having assemblies or eating in the cafeteria when they return to class in September.

Those are just a couple of examples of how the Lambton-Kent District School Board and the St. Clair Catholic District School Board are getting ready for the new school year with a bit more caution than recommended by the province.

Earlier this month the Ontario government put out their guidelines for a return to class. Students will wear masks and the province is investing in HEPA filters for classrooms to improve ventilation. Sports and music are also allowed with safety conditions. 

But the Lambton Kent public board and St. Clair Catholic board aren’t quite ready to adopt all the recommended provincial measures.

“There are a few things that are permitted that we are just not quite ready to embrace yet,” says Lambton-Kent Director of Education John Howitt. The public board put out its own back-to-school guidelines.

“An example of that is assemblies. We think we just need to gather a little bit more data and let the school year get started before we go in that direction,” says Howitt. 
The plan says all cafeterias will be closed to start the year but Howitt says there’s some wiggle room there.

“We have some really small schools where cafeterias may make sense to be used following the guidance of eating in cohorts and maintaining two metres minimum distance between cohorts. But we also have some context in schools where it may still be appropriate for students to eat in the classrooms.”

For schools where the cafeteria is closed, elementary students must bring their own food and eat it with their own class, without sharing. 

High schoolers also need to bring their own food but are allowed to leave school to go buy lunch. There also won’t be any working vending machines.

All students are allowed to go home for lunch and there will be food at school if they forget to bring some. All ages must also bring a refillable water bottle because fountains will be closed. 

The St. Clair Catholic board’s plan, expected next week, will be different.

“We’ve been working with the public board and our local medical officers of health to make sure that we’re pretty consistent in our applications,” he says. 

Johnson says assemblies and cafeterias will also be unlikely to start the year. And unlike the public school board, field trips will be off the table for a while.

While there will be more activity in the schools, many parents and medical associations are calling for mandatory vaccines for people who work in the province’s schools. The Delta variant of COVID-19 is spreading rapidly and, as US schools have learned, children are susceptible to it. Couple that with the fact there isn’t a vaccine available for kids under 12 and schools could be vulnerable to the virus.

But, the provincial government isn’t mandating vaccination for staff. Instead it’s implemented a vaccination disclosure policy where staff must say if they have had a vaccine or have a medical exemption or taken a vaccine education course. Those who remain unvaccinated will have to take a rapid test at least once a week.

Some parents and medical groups say that’s short of what is needed for a safe return to the classroom. 

Howitt says as far as the public board is concerned, tighter restrictions are an issue for higher powers.

“I believe that’s a question not so much for us as employers as it is for the Ministry of Education, the Science Table, the Chief Medical Officer of Health and local health input. We will follow the guidance that we are provided,” he says. Johnson agrees.

The province’s top doctor seemed to disagree with that take.

Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Keiran Moore, announced the vaccination disclosure policy, he said individual employers could do more if they wish.

As parents make plans for back-to-school, they won’t know if the teachers in their schools have been vaccinated. Results from the vaccination disclosure policy – which identifies how many teachers and staff at each school have been vaccinated – will be available to the public by Sept. 15. 

The Local Journalism Initiative supports the creation of original civic journalism that covers the diverse needs of underserved communities across Canada.