Sandra Henderson, Association of Yukon School Councils, Boards and Committees chair, sits for a photo in Whitehorse on July 28. Henderson said that the Yukon government should have consulted the association while preparing changes to the 2020-2021 school year. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Looking ahead to a very different 2020-2021 school year

“Everybody’s trying to figure out the safest way to get kids to the classroom. It’s not easy.”

As teachers, school staff, bus drivers and students get set to head back to school in three weeks, preparations are underway for a very different school year with new schedules, procedures and protocols in place to deal with COVID-19. Many are not happy with the changes.

On July 23, the Department of Education released documents outlining health and safety measures that will be in place for schools and buses.

Along with changes announced earlier that will move many high school students in Whitehorse to different locations than they would have otherwise gone and will see Grades 10 to 12 in the capital city move to a half-day blended learning model, the health and safety guidelines for all schools and school buses will mean changes everywhere.

The multi-page documents released July 23 includes measures like assigned seats on school buses; staggered start and recess times; increased cleaning; rearranging desks and furniture in classrooms; avoiding close greetings like hugs and high fives in favour of “air fives,” waves and nods; and rules like no singing or use of wind instruments for music classes; and physical education classes being held outside wherever possible.

While there are changes necessary to address health and safety, Association of Yukon School Councils, Boards and Committees chair Sandra Henderson argued there should have been more consultation.

The association, she said, has written a number of letters to the minister over the last few weeks, only receiving one response dated July 24 after changes for high school students along with school and bus guidelines were announced.

The Education Act, she said, clearly states in section 113 there is a duty to consult school councils on such changes. The association was not, she maintains.

“I’m deeply concerned for the delivery of curriculum,” she said, noting that while some students can do well with blended learning models, not all can and every student has the right to an opportunity to learn.

Many of those students need face-to-face contact and services such as those provided by counsellors and support staff.

While the department put out a survey about the at-home learning model that happened in the spring when classrooms were shut, the survey only closed July 22, just before the guidelines were announced and plans were in place.

“It’s a bit late for a survey,” she said, adding such a survey could have been delivered in June when students were still studying at home.

She pointed out with the pandemic declared in March, efforts could have gotten underway much sooner to get input on the 2020-2021 school year and that likely would have resulted in far less push back from parents and the public, many who are now stating their opposition to half-day plans and more via social media.

Had there been more consultation, she said there may have been more potential ideas to be explored, ideas like moving to a high school and junior high model for the time being rather than having two high schools.

Henderson worked as an educator for 52 years before she retired and also highlighted numerous concerns around the additional services students will need after being out of the classroom since March.

Parents too, she argued, need lead time to get ready for the school year and letting them know just before the school year starts on Aug. 19 for most schools is not sufficient.

That said, Henderson said at this point “it’s too late to change horses now.”

She expects there will have to be tweaking that happens throughout the year as the plans are put into action.

Meanwhile, as bus drivers get set to be back on the road, Standard Busing manager Normalee Craig said there will be changes and stricter rules in place this year. She stressed the health and safety of both students and drivers is a top concern for the company and work has been ongoing with the Department of Education to find the best way to do that while also getting students back to school.

“Everybody’s trying to figure out the safest way to get kids in the classroom,” she said. “It’s not easy.”

Bus drivers will be wearing masks and face shields will be available to staff for disinfecting the buses.

She noted plans are being drawn up for bus routes with a possibility of some routes having more than one bus to meet the guidelines that limit two students to a seat rather than three (unless they are from the same household).

Attendance will also be kept with students heading to the back of the bus when they get on to limit contact. Assigned seating will also be in place.

“Because of COVID we have to know who’s on the bus,” she said.

In the past there have been cases where students who may have behavioral challenges sit at the front of the bus closer to the driver, but that may not be possible now and if there is continued behavioural issues the family may be asked to find other transportation methods for the child to get to school.

Strict home-to-school, school-to-home rules will also be in place, meaning a student will not be able to get on a different bus after school to go to a friend’s house or other such activity.

The 3.2-kilometre radius in place for students to walk or find another way to school will also be firmly in place, meaning those students won’t be taking the bus.

Craig said that will allow the additional space on buses needed for students outside the 3.2-km radius.

As Standard continues planning for the changes, Craig said most drivers are anxious to get back on the job, though a few have opted not to return for this school year due to their own concerns over COVID-19.

“We are doing everything we can to keep them safe,” she said, highlighting the measures to make that happen.

The company is also hiring and providing training for the school year. It is working to have a long list of drivers, both regulars and spares, available for the 2020-2021 school year.

Contact Stephanie Waddell at stephanie.waddell@yukon-news.com

CoronavirusYukon Department of Education

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