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  • Writer's pictureHunter Cresswell

Below average back to school

Hills parents share concerns about ‘plan’

By Hunter Cresswell Schools across the region opened their doors and welcomed students back this week - but the number of kids returning are nowhere near pre-COVID numbers. Even those low numbers are cut by half when comparing the anglophone school boards to their francophone counterparts: the percentage of local English students who went to school this week is less than half that of local French students who returned to class.

According to Western Quebec School Board director general Mike Dubeau, an enrollment survey completed on May 7 showed that only 39 students would return to Chelsea Elementary this week compared to 310 enrolled at the beginning of the school year; only nine students would return to Kazabazua’s Queen Elizabeth Elementary out of the previously enrolled 77; and only 19 of 297 students would return to Wakefield Elementary. Across the 19 WQSB schools, the student return rate is just over 14 per cent. By comparison, Le Droit reported that the local French school board, Commission scolaire des Portages-de-l’Outaouais, which includes Grand-Boisé in Chelsea, has a student return rate of over 35 per cent.

A mask and glove-clad Wakefield Elementary School employee greeted the small handfuls of students that school buses dropped off on the morning of May 12, the first day of classes after about two months of school closures across Quebec in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hunter Cresswell photo
A mask and glove-clad Wakefield Elementary School employee greeted the small handfuls of students that school buses dropped off on the morning of May 12, the first day of classes after about two months of school closures across Quebec in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hunter Cresswell photo

Schools will definitely not have the same look and feel that parents may remember because of health and safety measures taken to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to a letter sent from Wakefield Elementary School to parents, staff may wear masks and gloves, physical contact between all students is prohibited, and students may not be in classes with their usual peers because class sizes are reduced to a maximum of 15 - in some cases masking tape on the floors will mark out a student’s two-metre space that they are to stay within for most of the day. Children will not be allowed share school supplies, students should bring their lunch, snacks, and water bottle to school and nothing else, recess will be restricted to activities students can do on their own or in a two-metre distance from each other, and pupils who don’t comply with the two metre physical distancing rules on buses won’t be allowed back on the bus - and those are just a sample of the strict measures in place.

When asked, Wakefield parent Borden Smid said he wouldn’t send his two kids back to Wakefield Elementary School May 12 – which opened one day later than most other schools in the province – because the Quebec government didn’t give staff adequate notice to prepare for reopening.

“I’m hoping the Ministry of Education in Quebec is not simply using this as an experiment to develop a proper plan for September when most kids in Canada will be going back,” Smid wrote in an email.

He is one of many parents across the Gatineau Hills with elementary school-aged children who were faced with a tough decision over the past week: whether or not to send their kids back to school after almost two months of school closures aimed at reducing the risk of spreading COVID-19 further.

“It has been clear that the [Quebec] ministry [of education] and school boards are hoping the majority of students don’t return,” Smid wrote. “Keeping my kids home is for our health and safety and to reduce the pressure for schools so that a bare minimum of kids arrive on May 11.”

The Low Down did a social media callout shortly after the Quebec government announced in late-April that elementary schools and daycares could start reopening. The callout asked for parents’ reasons for either keeping their child home or sending them back to class. Of the four emailed responses, none said they would send their kids back.

Shelley Day called it a choice that parents shouldn’t be forced to make.

“They have already been traumatized by leaving the school so abruptly and kept at home for two months. It’s not worth sending them back for the remainder of the year in our case,” she wrote of her 11 and nine-year-old children. “My children are old enough to understand what is happening around the world. However, even if they take every precaution, they are still children who will want to hug their peers and play in close proximity. At this point, we are not allowed to visit family members, leave our MRC, so why are we going to send them to school...?”

Old Chelsea resident Vick Ko wrote that not sending his nine-year-old back to Chelsea Elementary School is an act of solidarity with school staff.

“Sending our child back to school now only adds to the problems that the school staff will face. Remember that the school staff must return to work. They do not have a choice. I do not see any positive benefits that my child will gain on returning to school now and facing the distancing obstacles that the schools will face. In fact, I see many negatives imposed by the distancing,” Ko wrote.

WQSB chairman Alain Guy said schools will follow World Health Organization health and safety criteria when reopening.

“We’re very concerned. If we’re not ready, we’re not going to reopen,” he told this reporter over the phone.

Which is the case for Chelsea Elementary. Just four days before what was supposed to be the first day back, principal Andrea Gage sent an email to parents and students stating that her school’s reopening is postponed.

“Unfortunately, in order to meet safety guidelines, we will need to delay our reopening from the originally scheduled date of May 11. This decision was not made lightly and was unavoidable due to safety, training and staffing circumstances that must be addressed prior to the return of students,” Gage wrote.

She apologized for the inconvenience, but said school would be back in session on May 19.

Guy said that, since each school is different, each requires its own unique plan.

“We have people working very hard on it and the government has given us no plan,” he said.

For Wakefield Elementary, part of their plan includes weekly enrollment notices from parents stating that their children will return to school the following week, according to an email sent from principal Julie Fram-Greig to parents.

“This has been a very stressful time for all of the adults in the school and we appreciate your support and understanding along the way,” Fram-Greig added in her email.


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