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Two-week staggered start for public elementary students

By Courtney Bachar/The Oshawa Express/LJI Reporter

Durham District School Board (DDSB) elementary school students will be heading back to school with a two-week staggered start.

As part of its safe back-to-school plan in response to COVID-19, the Ministry of Education approved staggered starts for the first two weeks of school for elementary students attending in person.

“We believe that this will help provide flexibility for families and help ease the transition of your child returning to school, along with learning the health and safety protocols that we will have in place,” reads a DDSB letter to parents.

The board had previously approved a staggered start for Kindergarten students.

At a recent special board meeting with trustees to continue discussion regarding the back-to-school plan, acting director Norah Marsh explains the staggered start will allow for a smoother transition for students.

“I think it was very enthusiastically embraced in terms of the opportunity to teach students in smaller groups,” she says. “The health and safety protocols we know are extremely important in a successful return to school.”

She notes the board recognizes this may cause hardships for some families in terms of childcare and is “committed to working with those families” who may be facing that situation.

For the first two weeks of school, elementary school students will only be attending on specific days based on their last names.

Families with last names beginning with A to G will attend on Tuesday, Sept. 8; families with last names H to M will attend on Wednesday, Sept. 9; families with last names N to S will attend on Thursday, Sept. 10; and families with last names T to Z will attend on Friday, Sept. 11.

The following week, families with last names A to M will attend on Monday, Sept. 14 and Wednesday, Sept. 16; and families with last names N to Z will attend Tuesday, Sept. 15 and Thursday, Sept. 17. All students will attend on Friday, Sept. 18.

As part of the back-to-school plan for in-person learning, the board worked to ensure elementary classrooms were able to maintain a one-metre distancing between students.

acting associate director Jim Markovski says all 110 elementary schools across the board are set up to meet the one-metre distancing requirement.

However, the health and safety of students, educators and staff still remains a concern for some trustees, including Whitby Trustee Niki Lundquist, who questions whether the board is doing enough to keep everyone safe.

“We are being asked to implement a plan that is, in my view, under-resourced and we are continuing to improvise with less than two weeks to go until school and that’s worrisome,” she says.

According to Marsh, one of the reasons for being able to achieve the one-metre distancing in classrooms is because of the number of students who have enrolled in DDSB@Home for virtual learning.

DDSB currently has approximately 72,000 enrolled in the system for the school year. Of those, approximately 14,000 students have opted out and will be participating in remote learning, with the remaining approximate 57,000 students attending for in-person learning, according to Markovski.

Originally, the board gave parents until Aug 12 to decide whether to enroll their children for in-person or virtual learning, however Marsh says the board is still allowing parents to change their mind.

Marsh says between Aug. 21 and Aug 24 alone, an additional 800 requests came in from families opting out of in-person learning.

“The numbers are still fluctuating significantly,” notes Marsh, adding families who are wanting to switch from virtual to in-person learning are now being waitlisted, due in part to the one-metre distancing between students required in classrooms that has been achieved.

“If there is a new concern for spacing due to new registrations, schools have been asked to waitlist their registrations for the time being,” explains Markovski, noting fluctuations in student attendance may also have an impact on the reassignment of staff.

“We are continuing to monitor what school organizations are looking like and what they are going to look like leading up to September when we actually know which students show up for class when the school year commences,” he says, adding student enrolment will be monitored and those with enrolment pressures will have new staff introduced.

He says if elementary registration numbers pierce the 50,697 projected enrolment, additional funding would be needed.

Markovski acknowledges a potential challenge may arise with families wishing to switch back and forth between in-person and virtual learning.

“We are looking for opportunities to facilitate that and honour the voice of our families, while being mindful that we’re not exceeding class size maximum,” he says, noting a further update will be provided in mid-September once registration numbers are confirmed.

According to Marsh, the Ministry of Education has allocated $1 million for teacher funding, in addition to an internal commitment of approximately $25 million to address school sizes.

“While we may still be looking for additional funding, our first plan is to use our internal pot and then come to trustees with a request once we have a bit more stability within the schools,” says Marsh, noting she expects enrolment for virtual school will continue to grow in the coming days.

Oshawa Trustee Michael Barrett says one of the concerns raised from teachers is the number of students in the classrooms.

According to Markovski, for Grades 1 to 3, the board is expected to have 90 per cent of its primary classes at 20 or fewer students, and require 100 per cent to have 23 students or less. This means there will be no concerns in terms of the structuring of the classrooms to meet the one-metre distancing rule.

In Kindergarten, he says guidelines state 90 per cent of classes must have 29 or fewer students and 100 per cent must have 32 students or fewer. Grades 4 to 8 are required to have an average class size of 24.5 across the district.

“We have flagged every school that has pressure points right now in Kindergarten. We’re monitoring them,” he says. “When school commences and we see how many of these students come back, we will react rather quickly and release additional staffing to bring these numbers down.”

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