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No cohorts, masks return, Langley students face changes as they return to class

Local district is waiting for provincial approval to continue COVID-19 notification alerts
Tanya Kerr, president of the Langley Teachers’ Association, has concerns about the 2021-22 school year and the safety measurse planned. (Joti Grewal/Langley Advance Times)

Thousands of students and staff across the Langley School District will return to the classroom in a matter of days, while concerns surrounding the ever-raging Delta variant continue to loom.

During a year-end update mid-June the district was celebrating having recorded no school exposures that month, but some of the measures that may have mitigated the spread of COVID-19 will not be in place this 2021-22 school year, the Ministry of Education announced last week, including providing COVID-19 school exposure information.

READ MORE: Back to school Q&A: Is it safe for unvaccinated students? What’s the harm of school closures?

Unlike the previous school year, come Sept. 7 – when the school year begins– students will no longer be in cohorts or learning groups, physical distancing of two metres will no longer be recommended, staggered start and end times will not be scheduled, online learning options will not be provided like last year, and schools will see reduced cleaning.

But what is coming back is the provincial mask mandate. All kindergarten to Grade 12 staff, plus students in Grades 4 to 12 will be required to wear non-medical masks in all indoor areas of the school and on buses, while the ministry will only encourage kids in kindergarten to Grade 3 to wear masks.

At the secondary level, schools will operate under a semester timetable.

Tanya Kerr, president of the Langley Teachers’ Association, shared her concerns with the Langley Advance Times.

“It’s unfortunate that the guidelines reduced the cleaning to once in a 24-hour period and there is no additional money provided by the government to keep daytime custodians in schools,” Kerr noted.

“Teachers continue to have concerns that there is no mask mandate for kindergarten to Grade 3, especially because those children cannot be vaccinated at this time.”

Health Canada has approved COVID-19 vaccines for those 12 years and older.

When asked whether the COVID-19 vaccine should be mandatory to all those eligible in the district, Gord Stewart, superintendent of Langley schools, said those in the district aren’t the experts on the subject.

“Our district defers to the expertise of public health authorities on this matter,” he said. “The district is encouraging all eligible students and staff to get vaccinated.”

As of Aug. 24, 60 per cent of kids between the age of 12 to 17 in Langley had received their first and second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC), while 73 per cent had received their first.

READ MORE: 7-year-old Langley boy pens letter to education minister begging for more safety measures

That rate has seen an increase from the previous week when 56 per cent of kids in that age group had received two shots, and 72 per cent had received one.

Kerr said the BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) is not opposed to vaccine mandates, rather the focus remains on prevention and protection measures as most student at no yet eligible to be vaccinated.

“Any mandatory vaccine mandate from the employer would need to include a transparent process to protect privacy, accommodate workers with exemptions, and with an adequate timeline for implementation,” Kerr said, explaining the BCTF’s position.

While the province works to improve the vaccination rate, it committed to regularly inspect all school HVAC systems. Equipment in need of replacement will be funded through capital programs.

All district sites, including portables, have been upgraded to MERV 13 filters, keeping in line with provincial standards, Stewart noted.

“We know returning to school is an exciting time, but acknowledge that under our current circumstances it may cause anxiety for some of our families,” he said. “We expect this school start-up to be somewhat closer to what we all experienced before the pandemic.”

For instance, before the pandemic, extra-curricular activities were permitted, and they will return for the 2021-22 school year.

“We are pleased to see the return of sports and extra-curricular activities, gatherings and events, and community use of our sites, all of which will be in alignment with local and regional health and safety measures,” Stewart said.

Additional health and safety measures may be implemented by Fraser Health at individual schools, or in areas, which may impact these activities, something Kerr said the union is also working to clarify.

“There is lack of clarity with assemblies, how many people can gather?… Hopefully schools do not have assemblies with maximum capacity and consider multiple smaller assemblies or virtual assemblies,” she said.

The district, Kerr added, can also impose stronger health and safety practices than the minimum outlined by the province, but says it is unlikely.

“The district follows the advice from the BCCDC and Fraser Health and typically will not go beyond the recommended guidelines,” she said.

READ MORE: Distracted parents in drop-off zones a top concern for back-to-school rush: BCAA

Whether COVID-19 notifications through the school district will continue is also unclear.

“As announced by the province, we are awaiting confirmation on what that will look like but as always, our district will be flexible and prepared in meeting requirements,” Stewart said.

He also encouraged families in search of online learning options to contact U-Connect and the Langley Education Centre, as last year’s Transition Support Model will not be offered.

“The structure of the programming is dependent on the grade,” Stewart explained. “We encourage families to contact the schools to see if this is a choice that works for their child.”

Research by the BCCDC last year, the province said, “noted a significant impact on students from remote learning, including interrupted learning, increased child stress, decreased connection, increased loneliness, and mental and emotional health effects.”

The COVID-19 Immunity Task Force, funded by the provincial government, released a report in June that found there was no greater risk to school staff acquiring COVID-19 in a school setting compared to their community.

READ MORE: Study reassures parents, teachers that COVID-19 infrequently shared at school

Also, a Fraser Health study, the province said, found 87 per cent of school-associated cases were acquired through community or household transmission, not from the school setting.

Despite the uncertainty heading into this school-year, Stewart underscored the district’s commitment to safety.

“I want to assure families our schools will find ways to ensure spacing in our classrooms as much as possible… Health and safety remain a priority,” he said. “We are confident we will continue to see the same level of care and connection from staff with students, families, and each other in September and throughout the year.”

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