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Many changes as students set to return, but schools look to provide full experience

The start of the school year will look slightly different this year for students and parents as they head back to their classrooms September 7. It will be a slow, cautious start for students, extracurricular activities will be limited and cafeteria services at secondary schools won’t be in operation for at least another month, with limited capacities for some schools.

Students and staff will be required to wear masks and maintain social distancing protocols.

Despite the return, some students will continue to attend virtually.

It will be a staggered start for high schools such as Elmira District Secondary School, where Grades 9 and 10 will start on September 7, with students in Grades 11 and 12 arriving the following day.

“The good thing is for the secondary students is that they’re going to be seeing their peers back in the school with them this year. So, with the new constraints and parameters that we have from public health, it’s going to allow more of the peer group to be in the school at the same timeframe to bring that social aspect back to the building, which tends to bring energy. We’re really looking forward to that,” said EDSS principal Brad Marsh.

“As we move through the scenario of bringing everyone back and then loosening of the public health parameters that have been supplied to us, it’ll be a staggered kind of release of students into more normal activity. So, our nutrition break is a little bit shorter. We’re going to have to work through how we allow students to have their break and their lunch.”

Students and parents will be required to screen online for COVID-19 prior to their children attending school, with Waterloo Region District School Board superintendent Bill Lemon saying he hopes it will become a habit afterwards but there aren’t any requirements put in place yet past the first two weeks.

“Our facilities [people] have been working on upgrading the ventilation in a number of our sites and making sure that we get the appropriate air exchange and where possible, or where necessary, mechanical ventilation is being installed. So that’s been an ongoing project over the year,” said Lemon during a Zoom call Monday morning.

“We’ve had some direction around some activities regarding clubs and things like that following similar guidance to our classroom procedures, they could potentially proceed. Where we are waiting on more direction is around interschool sports – the Ontario Physical and Health Education Association, which we refer to in terms of their safety expertise, they will be releasing a COVID-specific safety document hopefully this week sometime and then we’ll base our procedures on that,” he said.

Lemon also mentioned some schools have seen an increase in students accessing virtual learning this year.

“We were at the low end of students accessing remote learning and we are again towards the bottom of it – we want to have them in the building to get not just the academic aspect, but the social and the fun stuff, the energy that comes from being in a building with your peers, which is a big part of high school. That is what we want to get back to,” said Marsh.

“We are ready for the 7th, and custodial have done a great job through COVID. And also working through this as they have taken the front line for sure in regards to school and keeping up with the parameters for that, they’ve done a fantastic job. So, they’re working away here to get us ready,” added Marsh.

Secondary students can expect a modified semester approach to their learning this year, different to previous.

“The parameters that came for us looked at bringing more of the student population back into the school and trying to get back to the semester system,” he said.

Lemon said they are currently not mandating vaccines for staff but are following the standards the Ministry of Education decides is best for schools in Ontario.

Lemon and Marsh said that classrooms will be more full this year, with all classrooms being used, the only limit to the number of students will be when secondary students are split into their group A and group B cohorts.

COVID-19 outbreaks amongst students is expected to happen as they attend classes again, but Lemon said they are prepared and will continue to offer in person learning as cases arise, not wanting the pandemic to consume students’ lives again.

“I think we have a great plan in place. Brad and his colleagues have built up some expertise over the year and implementing that plan – the work that they’ve done has been incredible. I really do feel that we are well prepared to welcome our students back,” added Lemon.

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