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Bow Valley schools prepare to welcome back students to classrooms

The Christ the Redeemer overall district plan is now publicly available, while plans for Our Lady of the Snows Catholic Academy are expected to be provided to parents this week
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Our Lady of the Snows Catholic Academy on Tuesday (Aug. 4). EVAN BUHLER RMO PHOTO

BOW VALLEY – With school officials hard at work preparing detailed re-entry plans for local schools, parents, students and teachers are trying to understand what COVID-19 changes will mean for returning to local classrooms this fall. 

Our Lady of the Snows Catholic Academy Principal Jamie Landry said the recommendations and requirements from public health officials are just the starting point for how that school plans to reopen in a few weeks.

"Anything they require us to do, we are going to venture to say those are the bare minimum," Landry said. "We are going to do everything we possibly can do to make the school as safe as possible." 

Christ the Redeemer Catholic School division has released its guidelines for schools to follow, based on those provided already by Alberta Education. That includes the most recent announcement that masks would be mandatory for staff, teachers and students in Grade 4 and above. 

Masks will be required while on buses, in hallways and common areas and at any time where physical distancing is not possible. Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw announced the new requirement at the beginning of the month. 

Hinshaw said masks are known to be an effective addition to already established protocols to prevent the disease from being transmitted in social settings. 

"Schools are unique settings where special measures are needed to mitigate the risk of exposure," she said. "But there is still no risk-free approach to living with COVID-19 – we have no choice but to live with it.

"Jurisdictions from around the world are trying to determine the most effective way to resume school. We will continue to monitor their experiences and our own.

"We must be agile, adaptive and guided by the evidence as it emerges."

Landry said there are three key areas that school administrators are focused on to ensure returning to classrooms is done as safely as possible. 

The first key factor for parents and students to understand is that the re-entry plan may change as advice from experts and Alberta Education changes. 

The second is that the school division is focusing on multiple ways to increase safety and while no individual mitigation or protocol will eradicate the risk, together all the measures being taken will result in a safer learning environment during the COVID-19 pandemic.

That includes organizing teachers and students into cohorts to minimize the number of encounters they have with others; teaching proper respiratory etiquette and hand washing techniques; and creating an environment where everyone who wants to wear a mask is welcome to.

"There is no single practice that a school or school division can institute that will eliminate risk, so we are doing everything we possibly can to mitigate risk to staff and students," Landry said. 

OLS welcomes students from kindergarten to Grade 12 and the principal said it is not going to be "perfect," but having regular conversations and learning opportunities so students understand the rationale behind those protocols is will likely "produce the safest possible environment." 

The plan being produced for OLS specifically, he said, has 26 areas of consideration for students and parents to go through before returning to school, which are also reflected in the district-wide plan. 

In a letter to parents on Aug. 5 from CTR superintendent Scott Morrison, he reiterated that the safe return to school this fall will depend on a variety of safety measures. 

"We recognize not everyone is comfortable with a return to school and we are committed to supporting our students and staff in creating the best conditions possible," Morrison wrote. 

CTR's detailed district-wide plan was publicly released at the beginning of the month. 

The efforts to mitigate risk of COVID-19 includes health measures focused on: the overall building safety; self screening every day; how to respond to an illness; masks; physical distancing; seating plans; hallway and locker protocols; pickup and dropoff expectations; visitors to the school; recess and mental health.

Some parents may choose to home school their children at the start of the school year. That can be done within CTR's Centre for Learning@Home program. 

"For those parents who are not comfortable sending their students back to school under scenario one, please notify your principal, as CTR can direct you to enrolling in the Centre For Learning@Home, CTR Catholic’s online school," Morrison wrote in a letter to parents.

Plans for OLS are expected to be publicly released this week with classes resuming Aug. 31 for the 2020-21 school year. 

Determining how many students are expected to return to classrooms and how many may move forward with home schooling is something that Canadian Rockies Public Schools (CRPS) is also hoping to better understand.

In a letter dated Aug. 5, superintendent Chis MacPhee asked parents to take an online survey for the division to better understand the enrolment numbers expected in September. The survey is available through the division's website until Aug. 12. 

The overall district-wide plan for CRPS is expected to be made public on Aug. 14 and the detailed specific plans for each school is expected Aug. 24. 

"A reminder that if you have any questions regarding your child's program or re-entry plans for the fall, we ask that you wait until you have received your child/ren's school re-entry plan(s) on Aug. 24 and that you contact the school on or after Aug. 25," MacPhee wrote.

While details so far from CRPS have provided the community an idea of some of the considerations being made, at the last school board meeting MacPhee said there would be no community use of school facilities allowed in order to minimize the number of people entering and exiting schools on a daily basis. 

However, director of learning, technology and facilities Steve Greene confirmed that restriction does not apply to the after-school care programs run by community groups at Elizabeth Rummel and Banff elementary schools.

"We will continue to run before and after school programming at ERS and BES," Greene wrote in an email. "We need to support our families and the students that attend our schools. This will be the only 'community use' in our buildings as we begin the new school year."