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What might K-12 schools look like in the fall? Depends where you are, educators say

At École Constable Edward Finney School in Winnipeg, everyone from teachers and educational assistants to custodians welcomed students who returned to school on Monday. But it wasn’t quite class as usual.

Families lined up by the chain-link fence beside colourful markers spaced two metres (six-and-a-half feet) apart. After answering a few heath screening questions, kids bid farewell to parents in the yard before entering the school and paused to wash their hands at a sanitizing station just inside the doors. New signs remind everyone about physical distancing, as do shoeprint-emblazoned floor markers.

Students — sitting evenly spaced out in classrooms and using only in designated areas — spent about two hours with teachers, some of whom taught their lessons outside on a beautiful spring day. After the kids headed home, staff held a midday cleaning blitz, including sanitizing learning materials and high-touch surfaces. 

In the afternoon, teachers started from the top for a fresh batch of students.

ecole constable edward finney school
At Winnipeg’s École Constable Edward Finney School, where some students returned this week, teachers take their students outside for class when possible. (Submitted by Karen Hiscott)

This week, British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island joined Quebec in re-opening school doors, welcoming teachers and bringing back a limited number of students part time. Across provinces, districts and even individual schools, these educators are taking different approaches — and their Canadian peers are watching carefully to see what classes might look like in the fall.

Though about 60 kids returned Monday, Finney principal Karen Hiscott estimates that 70 per cent of the school’s 475-student population will return in some manner this month — once a week for some, and more often for others.

“Everybody’s at a different comfort level,” she said. “We have this window of time right now in Manitoba … It’s the time to dip our toes into the water to see what this is all going to look like.”

ecole constable edward finney school in winnipeg
In Manitoba, ‘it’s the time to dip our toes into the water to see what this is all going to look like,’ says Karen Hiscott, principal of École Constable Edward Finney School in Winnipeg. (Submitted by Karen Hiscott)

Manitoba’s fortune in containing cases of coronavirus is giving its educators the chance to reconnect with students — primarily those with special needs, and those who’ve had the most difficulty with remote learning this spring — in person. They’re also taking public health measures and the needs of students, families and teachers into account, Hiscott said.

The process involves careful planning over the number of students so that schools adhere to public health guidelines. After educators voiced concerns about childcare and challenges in balancing remote and in-class teaching, Hiscott said her school division stepped in with support.

In-school daycare operations were reopened, new tech resources were provided and successful remote learning situations were preserved. Communication with parents has continued throughout, with regular check-ins at a rate teachers and parents were comfortable with so as not to overwhelm.

“We wanted to put control into teachers’ hands and into families’ hands,” Hiscott said.

ecole constable edward finney school in winnipeg
Spacing floor markers in a hallway of École Constable Edward Finney School are one measure the school is taking to keep students safe. But creating conditions for staff, students and their caregivers feel emotionally safe is much harder to achieve, principal Karen Hiscott said. (Submitted by Karen Hiscott)

The idea is for teachers to touch base with students, from reviewing lessons that may have been challenging via remote learning to checking in on students’ mental health amid the pandemic. It’s also helping them get comfortable with what many are envisioning will be a hybrid system that mixes remote and in-class learning during the next school year. 

“The longer you leave it, the harder it is to come back to something completely different,” Hiscott said by Zoom.

“Physically setting up a school with hand sanitizing stations, signs, floor markers, arrows, screening checklists, etc. is the easy part of the process. Creating the conditions in a school in which staff, students and their caregivers feel emotionally safe is much harder to achieve.”

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Students and parents wait to enter a school yard in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., on May 11, the day primary schools and daycares outside of the Montreal area opened. Building local perspectives into the school reopening process is key, according to veteran educator Sharon Murphy. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

‘Prepared for multiple scenarios’

The new normal for educators this spring and summer indeed means prepping for different scenarios that could unfold at a moment’s notice this fall, according to Steve Hachey, a New Brunswick high school teacher who returned to Chipman Forest Avenue School on Monday. 

Teachers gradually returned to the province’s schools on a voluntary basis this week, as schools also invited back students with complex needs part time. The province’s gradual reopening has allowed events like the school’s upcoming physically distanced graduation ceremony.

However, as the recent coronavirus outbreak in New Brunswick’s Campbellton region has shown, the local situation can change quickly, Hachey said.

“It’s so rapidly evolving that we have to … be prepared for multiple scenarios [this fall],” he said.

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Chipman, N.B., high school teacher Steve Hachey wants to see a return to regular assessment when the new school year begins. (Submitted by Steve Hachey)

He and his colleagues are busy planning various ways to teach this fall, with “our physical resources in front of us” as they continue to teach and facilitate extracurricular activities like student council remotely for now.

Hachey is hoping to see a return to regular assessments in the new school year, which he feels will help combat lacklustre engagement from some students since schools closed in March. Remote learning was labelled voluntary in New Brunswick. Students there will receive credit for classes ending this spring, but no specific mark or value. 

It’s a decision Hachey says post-secondary institutions are aware of and accepted. But students “need to see a figure attached, whether it’s a letter or a number. That’s the reward for their work,” he said. “That’s what education is. We need to assess.”

‘Local perspective’ required

Sharon Murphy, a veteran educator based in Toronto who specializes in language, literacy and assessment, is keeping an eye on school reopenings across Canada and in other countries. Whether it’s staggered attendance to boosted cleaning to masks and Plexiglas dividers, variety in approach has been the common thread — and that’s a good thing, she said. 

A teacher speaks to Japanese elementary school students in Koka City, Shiga prefecture on June 1, a week after the Japanese government lifted its state of emergency nationwide. Wearing personal protective equipment will be a new reality for some students when they return to class. (Jiji Press/AFP/Getty Images)

How schools reopen has to be considered from a local perspective both in terms of public health and the facilities at hand, said Murphy, who takes over as interim dean of York University’s faculty of education on July 1.

“Many places are saying they’ll probably using a combination of partial reopening with some online services,” she said.

“There might be some jurisdictions where children will be able to go back. It depends on the [coronavirus cases] in any one province… So that’s why local makes sense.” 

Murphy does foresee challenges, especially in areas such as physical education and complex subjects that require learning tightly sequenced, interdependent concepts, like higher-level mathematics for older students.

However, she describes education as “a long-term project of creating minds that are curious, knowledgeable, that can seek out new ideas” versus something easily derailed by the pandemic in the short term.

In north London, a teacher led a class with some students present and others participating by video conference on Tuesday. A ‘hybrid’ system is what many are envisioning schools will look like in the fall. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)

She pointed out that K-12 educators could employ a host of techniques — integrating multiple subjects for instance, or targetting essential parts of the curriculum and spending extra time on complex areas — to help make up for lost time.

In addition, as with the case when Ontario eliminated Grade 13, post-secondary institutions are developing additional resources to help support those Grade 12 students making that transition this fall, she said.

“If teachers and parents keep focus on trying to help children and young people be astute consumers in this information world we’re in, I think they will be ahead of the game right through post-secondary.”

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