Their fluid, ever-adapting system of social distancing, sanitation and teaching may provide a roadmap that will give our children safe passage when they return to school
Without a COVID-19 vaccine, parents and teachers may worry about their children returning to classrooms, but the province’s essential worker schools offer life-changing lessons in safety, community and teamwork.
When teachers, support staff and administrators were called on to create schools for the children of essential workers, classrooms became inadvertent development labs for the systems that may one day keep other children safe.
Staff stepped up when little was known about the virus, when terrifying images coming out of other countries showed people dropping dead in the streets.
They stepped up when outbreaks were popping like firecrackers in their own backyards. They did it when their own children begged them not to, when their friends called them crazy, when their spouses urged them to stay home.
Hollyburn Elementary School in West Vancouver is one of a number of public and independent school sites around the province that remain open to serve the children of essential workers and children that need special supports. Their fluid and ever-adapting system of social distancing, sanitation and teaching may provide a road map that will give our children safe passage when they return to school.
“We were aware of this virus moving fast and furiously in other countries,” said Sandra-Lynn Shortall, director of instruction for the West Vancouver school district, student support services.
Then, on March 12, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry made the announcement about no spring break travel.
“That’s when we realized this was going to have massive impact,” said Shortall.
Part of the ministry’s directive to educators as the province shut down was that school districts were to provide “the necessary supports for children of essential service workers.”
Shortall wondered how they would staff an essential worker school while there were still so many unknowns about the virus. “We had to be respectful of the sensitivities most humans were carrying, so we decided to approach this with a volunteer perspective.”
A call was put out to teachers who didn’t already have enrolled classes.
“It was a bit of a lottery. I had to build a team, but didn’t get to pick the team. We were gifted with amazing professionals that stepped forward with bravery and compassion,” said Shortall.
Farah Babul is part of that team. “My daughters, who are 10 and 12, were very afraid,” she said. “They didn’t want me to do it, but I wanted to do something to help.”
Hollyburn was chosen because it was an older building, with wider hallways, more space and sinks in every classroom.
Because the schedules of Tier 1 front-line workers — health and health services, social services, law enforcement and first responders — were long and varied, they would have to provide dawn-to-dusk care.
Liaising with existing before- and after-care providers in their schools proved complicated. “There was still a lot of fear in the community, so that moved us in a different direction,” said Shortall.
The school took on providing extended instruction from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
“We started with eight children; now we have 36, with more enrolling every day,” said Shortall.
They try to keep the teacher-student ratio at six students to one teacher, more if there are special learning assistants in the classroom.
The team worked together to design new systems. It removed desks from classrooms, hid object-laden shelves behind butcher paper, marked personal bubble space with painter’s tape and discovered that pool noodles are just right to define the social distance.
It set up a single door for entry and exit. Parents stay outside on arrival. Kids enter one by one. Each child is welcomed by a friendly face inside who asks three safety questions: Have they had a cough, a fever or felt unwell?
Next, the student is dispatched to wash their hands.
The lobby has two tables, one labelled “clean” and piled with Lego, volleyballs and badminton rackets, the other labelled “not clean,” for the used items.
At the end of the day everyone, no matter their job title, pitches in to wash up the Lego and the balls and the toys in a sink full of soapy water.
“The way everyone has come together is, without question, the most powerful, joyful and fulfilling thing I’ve ever been involved with,” said secretary Tori Sinclair.
Classrooms are disinfected after each transition throughout the day. Playgrounds were initially closed, but after consultation with health authorities they were reopened for school use only.
Lesson plans that teachers like Katherine Yurkovich have come up with are complex — all her students come from different schools with their own lesson plans. She has to create one cohesive unit.
“My friends said I wanted to be a martyr doing this. But I’ve worked with kids that have experienced trauma. I wanted to be here to help,” said Yurkovich.
The former scientist said her lesson plans about what germs are have helped ease the kids’ anxiety.
Babul said she brought her two daughters down to the school to ease their worries. “Once they saw what we were doing and how we were doing it, they felt better about me leaving the house every day,” said Babul.
Shortall said the kids are teaching the adults much about coping. “These children from different school sites were instantly able to connect and play, build friendships and spread joy in this strange new reality.”
They have slotted into the new normal with ease. They wash their hands with the vigour of little surgeons. They play with abandon — and distance. “It’s been absolute magic,” said Shortall.
Shortall’s team has documented practices, routines and tricks that can be transplanted from school to school and may help serve as guidelines for others moving forward. “We’ve created a solid system,” said Shortall.
There is only one thing they haven’t figured out yet: “The hugs, the high-fives, the human touch. We all still want that and we have to catch ourselves when we get too close.”
Original Link: https://vancouversun.com/news/local-news/0513-essential-workers-school