Classroom changes, extra cleaning staff some ways schools have adapted operations for pandemic

The seven schools in the School District of Mystery Lake (SDML) have changed operations substantially for the current school year, from reconfiguring classrooms to hiring additional staff.

SDML co-superintendent Lorie Henderson went over some of the changes schools had made in response to the COVID-19 pandemic at the first school board meeting of the year back on Sept. 14.

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“All of our classrooms were configured to support physical distancing,” Henderson said, by providing two metres of separation between students and teachers wherever possible.

Visual prompts like tape have also been added on hallway floors to remind students to keep their distance, while unsupervised areas such as hallway lockers and change rooms for gym classes are not being used this year because it wouldn’t be practical to enforce physical distancing among students using those areas. Water fountains in the schools have been shut off except for touchless water refill stations and systems have been introduced to ensure that only a limited number of students are in bathrooms at the same time.

“You’ll find that there’s two pylons – one for the first student, one for the second and if there’s no pylons, that means they have to wait until a pylon coms out,” Henderson said.

With the risk of transmitting COVID-19 putting an increased emphasis on cleaning, the school district hired daytime cleaners for they schools, which they didn’t have before, as well as full-time term substitutes who are assigned to one school and can only work there or at the school that one is twinned with instead of bringing in substitutes who may work in a number of different schools as well as in other locations at other jobs.

Recess and lunch breaks are staggered, visitors to schools are limited and must provide contact information and, when possible, teachers are moving from classroom to classroom instead of having students do so in order to reduce congestion in hallways.

At R.D. Parker Collegiate, which has two cohorts of students who only attend school in-person two days a week, in order to facilitate social distancing, all students and staff wear masks in the hallways and in classrooms when keeping two metres apart from other people isn’t possible.

While fear of being exposed to COVID-19 is not a reason within itself to keep students out of schools there are independent study options for those with conditions that make them more vulnerable to infection or who have family members with such conditions. Parents also have the option of taking their students out of SDML schools and enrolling them in homeschooling through Manitoba Education and Training. Homework packages are not provided to students whose parents keep them home from school without a medical reason or enrolling them in homeschooling.

Ensuring that schools pose as low a risk as possible when it comes to potential transmission of COVID-19 – there has been only one confirmed case among anyone connected to a Thompson school so far, which was reported to parents and guardians of RDPC students Oct. 20 –does come at a cost to the district.

As of Oct. 9, the district had spent $408,000 on pandemic-related expenditures so far this school year, district secretary-treasurer Kelly Knott told the school board at its Oct. 13 meeting, much of it on technology to enable remote learning for elementary students who cannot attend in-person classes for medical reasons as well as high school students, who take part in distance education classes every Wednesday. About $86,000 has been spent on supplies, including hand sanitizer, which is available at all school entrances and classrooms, and disinfectant, which has been provided to teachers and for high-use equipment like photocopiers.

The SDML budget for COVID-19 expenditures this year is about $1.8 million, $1.5 million of which was money saved when in-person classes were suspended for the last three-and-a-half months of the 2019-2020 school year. If that money is all spent, as well as any money within the overall budget that can be redirected towards COVID-19 expenses, the school district can apply for funds from a $32 million provincial fund designed for such costs. Based on the district’s enrolment of just over 3,000 students, SDML would be eligible for about $487,000 of that fund, Knott said at the Sept. 29 school board meeting.

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