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Chinook's Edge superintendent confident about safely reopening schools for in-class learning

COVID-19 risk can’t be eliminated, but mitigated, says Kurt Sacher
SUN Kurt Sacher
Kurt Sacher, Chinook’s Edge School Division superintendent of schools, expressed confidence that classes will resume as safely as possible in September. File photo

INNISFAIL - Although the risk of COVID-19 cannot be eliminated, potential spread of the contagion can be carefully managed and minimized, says the superintendent of schools for the Chinook’s Edge School Division.

“We do feel that we will have all of the safety pieces put in place to appropriately mitigate any of the risks,” said Kurt Sacher during an interview on July 22.

The provincial government last week released a document outlining guidelines featuring recommended practices for the planned re-entry of schools in September.

“You do need to recognize there’s always some risk — you can never extinguish risk. But our job is to mitigate it as best we can in the most reasonable, practical way,” said Sacher.

“We’re excited about having kids back in schools, where quite frankly they belong. That is the best place for them to learn. It is the best place for us to help them develop socially and emotionally. They learn not only from their teachers, but from their peers and all of those social opportunities that exist in schools.”

The school division wants to return to a semblance of normalcy, and since the pandemic is not about to disappear overnight, life must go on, he said.

“Having young children in particular at home for extended periods of time, we do worry about that,” he said.

“We are getting to a point where we are becoming increasingly concerned that students definitely need some face-to-face instruction.”

He expressed pride for the work teachers have done remotely delivering course work and providing support online.

“But our best work is done face-to-face.”

Asked how physical distancing in classrooms with 30 students could be maintained, he said, “It’s clearly laid out in the (provincial government’s) guidelines to make a reasonable and practical attempt at that.”

Recognizing that physical distancing won’t always be possible in every situation, he said other measures are also going to be used.

“You can provide directional arrows in hallways, which we will. You can provide as many opportunities in as many locations as possible where students are separated. Minimize any form of assembly if it’s not necessary, to having kids learn outside when it’s possible, keeping kids cohorted as much as possible. All of those things are considerations for us to minimize the distancing challenges.”

Additionally, the school division has strict protocols requiring students and staff to do their own self-assessments and to stay home even if they’re only feeling slightly unwell.

Furthermore, he said Alberta Health has committed to reacting quickly in any worst-case scenario in a school where anyone tests positive for COVID-19.

“We do have plans if — for whatever reason — the province changes its direction, or we have a particular situation in our system where we need to move to either an intermittent attendance process, or to online learning. We’re prepared for that.”

Expressing confidence in the government’s approach, he said provincial officials are “doing the best they can with a very difficult situation” and have consulted with superintendents across the province.

“We’re pleased with the process. The fact that they’ve allowed us some discretion within our jurisdiction to meet contextual needs, I think that’s a good thing,” he said.

Chinook’s Edge intends to publish its guidelines — which will be based on provincial recommendations — prior to Aug. 14, he said.

“We still have a few things that we need to iron out, and we’re working on that.”

Although Sacher feels the government has provided adequate direction and support to ensure as safe a return to class as possible in September, he conceded additional assistance would be welcome in some regards.

“I’ve asked if they could provide a little more clarity relative to masks — you know, the types, the use, if we’re encouraging it, how are we encouraging it,” he said.

“The other area we’re going to have to figure out with a little more detail, are some of the cohorting options that are available. Those are pieces that we have to figure out internally.”

While safety is paramount, procedures must be practical and doable, he said.

Asked how hygiene, such as frequent hand washing and sanitizing among young children, would be enforced, Sacher also expressed confidence.

“I do believe that our staff, first of all, they’re just top-notch caring professionals who treat every child as if it’s their own in that regard,” he said.

“They’ll make it fun, they’ll make it easy, they’ll make it a routine. That’s one of the things that I don’t think people appreciate enough, is how skilled teachers are at establishing routines with a wide range of students in a wide range of grade levels.”

Signs reminding students to wash their hands often have also been posted throughout the jurisdiction’s schools. Some of those routines are already in place, but efforts will be ramped up to elevate those expectations considerably because of COVID-19, he said.

In terms of whether the provincial government is providing enough support — in the form of funding for COVID-19 related expenses or even additional teaching aides — Sacher said he’s pleased baseline funding was sustained for another year.

“From our perspective, you have to appreciate the economic climate that we’re in right now, where we’ve got families out of work, we’ve got people struggling. And so to think that government has got a lot of extra money to throw at problems is not really realistic,” he said.

But the government is granting a lot of financial flexibility by allowing school districts to redirect operational and maintenance monies, as well as reserves to cover costs incurred as a result of the pandemic protocols, he said.  

“We’re very confident that we’ll be able to navigate everything from a fiscal perspective.”

Loaded with words such as “should”, “may”, “consider”, “recommended”, or “where possible”, the government’s guidelines leave room for school districts to develop their own plans, he said.

“When they put in some of the terminology that boxes us in, it needs to be backed with a reality check, like is it doable? That’s where we appreciate some of the flexibility,” he said.

However, he reiterated that more support is needed on issues that require the expertise of health professionals, such as primarily whether to use masks and more importantly how to safely and effectively wear them.

“That’s where we could use a little bit more guidance and direction.”

Another important item requiring further clarity is safely busing students, he said.

“We still haven’t received guidelines relative to transportation. So we look forward to those, hopefully prior to the middle of August,” he said, adding parents will be updated when the information becomes available.

Summer school enrolment down

On the subject of summer school, Sacher said, “To my knowledge, it’s gone extremely well.”

Self-assessments and self-screenings have been conducted, with necessary steps followed as required, he said.

“We’ve had a couple cases where students have self-identified a symptom, like a minor cold symptom, and then they stay home,” he said.

“We follow those guidelines. If you’re sick, stay home. And we’re vigilant about that. Those are strict protocols.”

The division’s three, live interactive summer schools — in Olds, Innisfail and Sylvan Lake — are at about 85 per cent of capacity in terms of student attendance, he said, adding the decline is to be expected under the current circumstances.

“So, we have close to 50 students in each of those programs taking summer school. We have a maximum of 15 at any given time.”