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Parents anxious about return to school

DARIUS SHAHHEYDARI
PONTIAC May 6, 2020
The provincial government announced last week that elementary schools and daycares will be reopening on May 11 in the regions of the province less affected by COVID-19, which include Pontiac.
They also announced that staff over the age of 60 have been asked to stay home, with the subsequent teachers being replaced by individuals with at least three years of a university education program.
In Outaouais, both the Commission scolaire des Hautes Bois de l’Outaouais (CSHBO) and the Western Quebec School Board (WQSB) are preparing for the reopening of these schools.
CSHBO Director General Denis Rossignol said that, starting this week, their school staff will be calling parents to ask whether or not their children will be coming back to school and to ask them not to leave their children on the side of the road when they are dropped off in the morning.
Students will be taught how to respect social distancing in their first week back in the classroom.
“We have to ensure the protection of the kids and the employees,” he said.“We can [teach] them how to do a virtual hug.”
In addition to this, kids will also be required to wash their hands before coming to class, whether they are coming from home or they have been outside.
Parents will not be allowed inside the schools and the school yards will be closed to anyone but the students and staff, who will still need to maintain social distancing in them.
Classrooms will be limited to 15 students, however, Rossignol said that the most important factor is to maintain that social distance, so if this cannot be done in some classrooms with this number of students, that limit could still drop. For rooms exceeding 15 students, there will be additional staff brought in and the rooms will be split.
According to Rossignol, this challenge is a branch of a greater issue that stretches beyond the effects of COVID-19.
“We have a hard time recruiting teachers,” he said. “Even before the schools closed, it was an issue.”
These new staff members coming in will have the role of “helpers” and will be moving between classrooms, so that when one room has a teacher in it presenting new material, the other will have the “helper” who will be there only to assist the students on their previously taught subjects.
Students have been evaluated based on the first two terms, with the present interrupted term still being up in the air and awaiting directives from the ministry.
On behalf of the WQSB, Chairman Alain Guy said no group meals or physical education classes will be taking place when the elementary schools reopen and the capacity of the school buses have been reduced by 75 per cent to ensure the safety of the bus drivers, of which only those under the age of 60 will be allowed to come back to work.
Given the safety and security measures of the schools, any new staff coming in, including those mentioned by the ministry who will be required to have at least three years of university experience under their belts, must have police record checks done on them.
No new material will be taught in order to keep the students who will be coming back on an equal playing field to those who will be staying home.
This is not the only reason for this decision, however.
“I’m not sure if the teachers will be able to present anything new since the curriculum is in a mess now, in a way,” said Guy. “We already lost several weeks, if not months, of material and now, where do you pick up? There’s no way that you can catch up.”
Due to this, students will be evaluated based on their on the marks they have already received in the first two terms - this once again being the same measure taken by the CSHBO.
For families in the region, the decision to reopen elementary schools caused divided opinions, resulting in some students that will going back to school and others that will be staying home.
Lisa Boisvert lives in Campbell’s Bay and shares custody of her children, who are in fourth and fifth grade at Dr. S.E. McDowell Elementary School in Shawville.
She considers the closed borders and the death tolls in retirement homes as signs that it is not yet safe to be sending her kids back to school.
Another factor which worries Boisvert is that children are more susceptible to being careless or simply unaware of the new precautions they must take.
“You are telling me that children aren’t going to accidentally touch door knobs, share pencils or share a book?” she said.
While the ministry asked all kids with health conditions to stay home, there are still loopholes through this precaution, according to Boisvert.
“My son is asthmatic and my daughter is not,” she said. “Why would I send my daughter and not my son. If she’s going to pick something up she is going to take it right back home.”
She said that there are other risks as well.
“I am an essential worker and my ex is an essential worker,” she said. “We go to work every single day and we take precautions, but we can potentially be bringing stuff home, which our kids could bring to another kid who can bring it to their parents and they will get it.”
Boisvert also does not understand why the decision was to open elementary schools only.
“Why did they not tell high-schoolers to go back, they have better immune systems. Why send our little children. Is it like trial and error with our little ones? Are they expendable?”
The WQSB announced on their website that permission must be given by both parents for children to return to schools, regardless of whether they are in shared custody or not - an announcement which pleased Boisvert.
Her ex-husband, who lives in Norway Bay, has agreed that his children should stay home, however, according to his Boisvert, he was initially on the fence about the decision.
The Campbell’s Bay mother, like other parents in the province, was mailed packages from their children’s teachers as an option to go over material at home, which she chose to take advantage of.
She says that, despite being a full-time essential worker, she enjoys taking the time to work with her kids on an individual basis, calling this a new “life skill”.
“We’re following the curriculum the best we can,” she said. “My daughter is doing projects and my son is doing his reading and math.”
There are other parents in county that have also decided to keep their kids home, but have perhaps not taken a stance as quickly as Boisvert.
Desiree Tremblay-Giroux lives in Otter Lake and her kids, who are in fourth and sixth grade, also attend Dr. S.E. McDowell Elementary School.
At first, she was on the fence about sending her kids back but now she thinks that the schools are not prepared yet for the reopening, although there are some positive aspects coming out of the institutions at this time.
“The teachers have done a great job during this time of isolation to keep in contact with their kids,” said Trembay-Giroux. “They have been sending their optional education packages and more. Some of them have created Google classrooms with assignments and have been creating work, even if it was optional.”
Her husband, Patrick Giroux, shares a similar opinion with Boisvert.
“Even if it may not affect them as much as it affects elderly people, it will still put us, as parents, at risk, and even the school staff and the school bus drivers,” he said.
Some parents have chosen to send their kids back to school.
Johanne Kingsbury is from Quyon and her children, who are in fourth and fifth grade, go to Onslow Elementary School.
She based her decision to send her kids back to school on comparing how Pontiac has been affected by the virus compared to other areas.
“Logistically, we have no sickness here. If I lived in the city, where there is a lot of sickness, I may have reconsidered my decision,” she said.
Another reason Kingsbury is sending her children back to school is because she feels they are being affected by the isolation.
“I have definitely noticed in my children a change in behaviour almost bordering on depression, like they don’t have that emphasis to want to get up and go to things, like they did with schoolmates,” she said.
She has only just started receiving the educational packages from the ministry for her kids and her family also does not have internet access, so prior to this, her kids needed a teacher.
“The ministry, they have not really sent us much,” said Kingsbury. “So basically during the quarantine, for the majority of the younger children, it just has been, in my opinion, a holiday. A holiday where they don’t get to see anybody, so a very lonely holiday.”
According to Kingsbury, some students who choose to go back to school will have the opportunity to improve in their understanding of previously learned material, and reach the level previously attained by their peers who are staying at home.
“There are still so many ifs or buts about it,” said Kingsbury. “I just thought that it was fine in our little region because we have no sickness here. It will come here eventually, we can’t avoid it forever, but hopefully we can avoid the worst of it. We’ve come to a crossroads where life has to go on. There is only so long we can lock the world down for.”

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