Mount Baker Secondary School welcomes students back for 2021/22 this week. Barry Coulter photo

Mount Baker Secondary School welcomes students back for 2021/22 this week. Barry Coulter photo

School District 5 uses last year’s pandemic lessons as school gets underway

Staff and students across the Southeast Kootenay school district have headed back to the classroom amid a second year in the COVID-19 pandemic.

With one week under the belt, district staff are reporting that school operations have been much smoother this time around, having learned lessons and adapted to the challenges of in-person learning during a pandemic.

“Last year, everything was brand new, so as a system, we’re much more prepared to implement the provincial regulations,” said Jason Tichauer, Director of Student Learning and Aboriginal Education, and the district’s Safe Schools Co-ordinator, “but I think in those regulations, what has made things smoother is the return, not necessarily to complete normalcy, but a return to things that kids and parents would expect to see.

“So high school is running regular semesters with the courses they would regularly run. There’s no learning groups [cohorts] K-12, which gives schools a lot more flexibility to have days that would look like what students and parents would expect them to look like.”

“The fact that things like school sports are happening, that things like concerts can happen, and will happen. So I think with those types of flexibilities within the regulations, it is allowed our facilities to feel much more like they did pre-COVID.”

The SD5 Board of Education, including trustees and senior district staff, met for a monthly meeting on Sept. 14 in Cranbrook to mark the beginning of a new school year.

Under provincial regulations, schools are no longer utilizing the K-12 learning cohorts system from last year, while a mask mandate for Grades 4-12 are in place, and strongly encouraged for those younger in grades below the mandate threshold.

Students are being encouraged to bring their own masks to school given that masks are generally mandated for indoor public spaces anyways, but schools should have disposable masks on hand in case students or staff forget to bring one, according to one district official during Tuesday’s board meeting.

COVID-19 reporting protocols are also a bit different this year, which is largely being handled by Interior Health. While letters were sent home to inform parents of test positive cases in cohorts, the reporting of cases this year will be more specific and targeted, said Tichauer.

In the hypothetical situation of a test-positive case, Interior Health will handle the contact-tracing, and there are specific plans for specific schools depending on whether there are single cases or an identified cluster, he added.

On contact tracing, that could mean Interior Health would ask school principals for attendance record to see when a student or staff person was in a particular classroom, or a seating plan to see where they were in relating to who may be potentially affected around them.

“It is very situational…our principals will work with Interior Health on what Interior Health needs as part of their processes,” Tichauer said.

During Tuesday’s board meeting, SD5 Superintendent Silke Yardley broke down the chain of communication over a hypothetical COVID-19 case in school, noting Interior Health would contact her, she would contact the affected school principal, and the principal would then assist with contact tracing.

“They [Interior Health] are doing all the calls to the individuals and we are not sending a letter home unless…there are a larger number of cases, then there might be a different plan,” she told the board.

One trustee also raised a concern about cleaning protocols. Under the provincial COVID-19 cleaning protocols for schools, general cleaning and disinfecting of frequently touched surfaces will be conducted once very 24 hours.

Middle schools and secondary schools have daytime custodians, however, custodial work in elementary schools typically occurs at the end of the day, according to Shelley Balfour, president of the Cranbrook District Teachers’ Association.

One SD5 official during Tuesday’s board meeting noted that the district is conducting a ‘fact-finding’ mission to look at facilities that may need additional daytime cleaning.

Additional custodial hours were available last year due to additional COVID-19 funding from the ministry, however, that pandemic funding hasn’t been continued into this school year.

Tichauer also clarified that the district is following the Ministry of Education’s guidelines, which are informed by data from the BC Centre for Disease Control about the “lack of young children, primary children, that contracted COVID-19 in schools, and quite frankly, the lack of data supporting that schools were in any way, shape or form, the main conduit for young children to get COVID.”

Last year, provincial funding to address ventilation systems in schools across the province was also doled out from the ministry, some of which did come to facilities in the district, Tichauer confirmed.