Students returned to in-person learning at schools across the Valley last Tuesday, despite potential staff shortages and uncertainties surrounding the impact of high COVID-19 case counts in the community.
The New Frontiers School Board (NFSB) and the Centre de Services Scolaire de la Vallée-des-Tisserands did not experience any service interruptions during the first week back, with both boards reporting relatively low absentee rates for students. Effective measures are in place to accommodate or replace staff forced to isolate due to the virus.
51 staff members were absent from NFSB schools, with 33 confirmed to have tested positive while 18 were in isolation due to exposure or pending test results. At least 19 students and five employees returned to their schools after having recovered from the virus. “The numbers are manageable right now,” says the NFSB director general, Rob Buttars, who adds that most positive-testing staff members were well enough to work from home.
Buttars credits the successful start of the winter semester to responsible parents, staff, and students, who are following protocols and continuing to take the situation seriously. He is also pleased that the Education Ministry is allowing the board and its schools the flexibility they need to manage the situation locally. Buttars says this will result in more transparency, as schools will now communicate directly with families when cases are identified.
Schools will also continue to provide rapid tests for students who present symptoms during the day. The government has now provided test kits to secondary schools, as well as to the different adult and professional centres; however, these kits may only be used in school. Second sets of five tests each were distributed this past week to elementary students to be used at home.
Students and staff are required to wear procedural masks throughout the day, even during physical education classes. Buttars says that while the NFSB did not qualify for any of the N-95 masks supplied by the government, the board has ordered 4,000 of them to be distributed to schools for staff working with special-needs students where distancing is more difficult.
Carbon dioxide monitors in place
The government’s highly touted carbon dioxide (CO2) monitors have been installed in every learning space in eight NFSB schools, with monitors coming soon to Gault Institute, Heritage Elementary, Harmony Elementary, Mary Gardner School, St-Willibrord Elementary, the Chateauguay Valley Career Education Centre, and the Huntingdon Adult Education and Community Centre. “They are up, and providing results,” says Buttars, who refers to the monitors, which capture the overall room temperature, carbon dioxide level and relative humidity, as “a good awareness piece that will allow us to react.”
Unfortunately, the monitors also place an additional stress on teachers and support staff, who are now tasked with managing classroom environments. Reports of students wearing coats in Quebec classrooms with open windows, as teachers reacted to CO2 readings nearing the 1,000-ppm target, prompted a response from the Education Ministry on Friday.
“The environment in which students are taught can have a direct impact on learning and achievement,” said Education Minister Jean-François Roberge, who noted expert recommendations cite proper ventilation in addition to measures already in place, such as masking, distancing, and isolation protocols, in keeping schools safe.
According to the ministry, average CO2 concentrations below 1,500 ppm indicate adequate ventilation. “As a former teacher myself, I am aware of the importance of opening windows in classrooms, but not at the expense of student comfort, especially in very cold weather,” said Roberge. “You have to look at the big picture,” he added, suggesting schools focus on finding a balance between the comfort parameters being measured.
Buttars says NFSB schools have already been monitoring air quality levels as part of their regular preventative maintenance plans. He confirms that the levels are above standard, and that NFSB schools will not qualify for the air exchangers promised by the government.