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Reopening school like walking a tight rope, said Sen Pok Chin teacher

Reopening school like walking a tight rope, said Sen Pok Chin teacher

Sophie Gray

Local Journalism Initiative

The Osoyoos Indian Band cultural school reopened this week in line with public schools across the province as COVID-19 restrictions begin to ease, but one teacher said reopening is much more complicated than most thought.

Julie Shaw is the International Baccalaureate curriculum coordinator and kindergarten teacher at Sen Pok Chin in Oliver. The cultural school decided to open on Monday despite not being mandated to like other public schools. She said planning for the reopening has been a learning experience like no other.

“It’s a tightrope to walk between not traumatizing the children with being overly precautious, but also being mindful that we hold the responsibility of upholding the parents’ and the communities’ safety,” said Shaw.

Shaw and two others on the pedagogical leadership committee decided reopening was the right course of action after phoning each family from the school’s roster. The phone calls, said Shaw, revealed a spectrum of opinions on the virus, safety, and reopening schools.

Shaw said many families were concerned about members in their household with asthma or other underlying conditions and didn’t feel comfortable taking the risk of bringing the virus into the home. Others were not concerned at all, happily allowing their children back to the classroom. Some did not see the point, having established good work from home routines, of three and a half weeks of part time in person sessions.

Some, said Shaw, even told her that they felt like it was a social experiment to send their children back to school.

“It’s a real mixed bag for sure,” said Shaw. “Schools are a really hard place to find that common ground on something that’s so polarizing and falls into that public opinion spectrum.”

Coronavirus may not seem like something on the public opinion spectrum, but the topic of returning to school is. Numerous press conferences, town halls and public announcements have been made by health authorities and education leaders in B.C. to help parents feel safe if they choose to send their children back to school part-time.

But school will look very different this time around, said Shaw.

Sen Pok Chin is starting with half days twice a week, with 40 per cent of their students planning to attend. For the younger grades, that presents specific challenges that Shaw said they’ll have to address once they’re back in the classroom. Five year olds can’t sit at a desk all day or be asked to stay six feet away from each other, as Shaw said they don’t understand distance or why they are being asked to play alone.

“To throw them in for a whole entire day where you’re asking little ones to self regulate, it’s a really tough call. Schools are not a natural social distancing place,” she said.

Add to that extra cleaning measures, continuing online learning for those remaining at home and the possibility of a second wave once school comes back in the fall, and the future of what school will look like down the line is uncertain.

Sen Pok Chin is developing plans for three different scenarios for what school will look come September. They are preparing to return to full-time at home learning, as they have done for the last two months, a combined in-person and online learning approach if measures stay the same, or a return to full-time in person instruction.

But above all, Shaw and the team at Sen Pok Chin are concerned with making sure that once students feel safe enough to get back into the classroom, they’ll want to keep coming back.

“You want (students) to come back and want to continue to return. And if we do something at least to get out of the gate and get started, we want to make sure it’s successful and fun and safe,” Shaw said.

She said with help from the Osoyoos Indian Band, they’ve been able to repurpose facilities like the community gym to allow for social distancing in some of the classes that did not have room, and purchase new technology for in-person and online learning.

Some services, like the school bus, will not return just yet while others will continue the way they have since the pandemic hit in March.

Shaw is happy that most families have been understanding and flexible about the changes. She said she’s especially thankful for the teachers, who went above and beyond for their students. Some have been setting up video calls with older students at 8 P.M., or adjusting their schedules to fit the needs of the students while they’re at home.

She said this whole experience of distance learning has made her realize how many factors can affect not just a teacher’s ability to teach, but also a student’s ability to learn.

“There’s hurdles out there that you don’t really realize and appreciate when you’re sitting and making policies and schedules from a distance, and then when you start to hear some of the personal stories you’re like oh, well that would be really hard,” said Shaw, citing students taking on part-time work to help support their families.

But mostly, she’ll be glad to get back into the classroom to see her kindergarteners again.

“I have 18 students in my room and you just don’t feel like you’re part of their little lives anymore,” she said. “They’ll see you uptown and they’re just, ‘we just miss you and I just want to give you a hug,’ and you’re like I know, but, it’s hard.”

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