There were two questions that nagged at Kyla Blair when the school where she works – and that her children attend – restarted class.
Would her kids be safe? And would she be able to help keep other kids safe?
Blair, a mother of two, is a teacher and education assistant at Stein Valley Nlakapamux School, a First Nations registered independent school near Lytton, B.C., which resumed classes nearly a month ago.
The Ministry of Education said the school is the first in B.C. among public and independent schools to have started the 2020 to 2021 school year.
The school operates on a year-round schedule, with extended breaks for students and teachers four times a year, which line up with culturally significant times for the Nlaka’pamux Nation.
Stein Valley Nlakapamux School has been in session for four weeks, with the first three weeks allowing students to attend on alternating days to reduce class sizes. Full classes resumed last week, and the current semester is set to run until Oct. 2.
The Nlaka’pamux Nation hasn’t seen any COVID-19 cases to date.
Blair is a kindergarten teacher and special education assistant at the school, where her kids are in kindergarten and Grade 3.
She said she was concerned about the kids’ ability to follow physical distancing guidelines and other COVID-19 protocols.
“It’s a scary time to be making the decision to be taking your kid back to school or not,” she said. “I’m so thankful that we have the ability to have such small class sizes and have all these extra precautions in place so my kids and my family are safe.”
School administrator Edith Loring-Kuhanga said the school was running through its reopening plan before the Ministry of Education had released its own initial COVID-19 guidelines at the end of July and into early August.
Teachers are set to return to B.C. public schools on Sept. 8, with students reporting to classes two days later.
“We had to just kind of create our own (guidelines). It was a little bit nervewracking,” said Loring-Kuhanga. “Some of the parents and the staff were concerned we were going to be guinea pigs … and what if it fails?”
The school decided to take as many safety precautions as it could, she said.
Students are screened three times before entering a classroom, personal protective equipment is available to the 40 staff members and each classroom was cleared out to allow for greater physical distancing.
School staff went through the province’s latest guidelines line-by-line and found that they’re doing more than what is required, said Loring-Kahuna.
“Our board has been very adamant that they don’t just want us to meet the standards, they want us to exceed them,” she said.
Despite staff worries over children understanding the new reality of COVID-19 safety measures, Blair said students have been quick to follow the new guidelines.
Parents across the province have expressed concern about the safety of schools when they reopen, and while Blair says she understands those worries, she urged parents to trust teachers.
“Parents need to trust that teachers and the staff at schools are going to be working their very hardest to follow the protocols and do the very best they can to keep everyone safe,” she said. “Everybody is doing their best. Mistakes might be made but that’s how we learn and we can correct the mistakes as we go.
But she added that the Ministry of Education should be stricter on class sizes when class resumes to better manage safety concerns.
In a statement, the Ministry of Education notes that First Nations independent schools are exempt from the provincial government’s requirements to fully open.
“The health and safety of teachers, students and staff is our top priority,” the ministry said in a statement. “The government’s restart plan enables schools to deliver learning within the BCCDC’s comprehensive health and safety requirements.”
This report was first published by the Canadian Press on Aug. 24, 2020.