It was the first day of school for thousands of Surrey students Thursday (Sept. 10), and it looked very different compared to other years.
Some students were returning to school for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down most in-classroom learning back in March. However, some students returned in June for a few weeks of in-class learning.
Thursday and Friday served as orientation days for students as they learned about new health and safety protocols in their schools to hopefully ease the spread of COVID-19.
While there are dozens of schools in the Surrey school district, and each one will look different, the Now-Leader got to check out one elementary school in Newton on Thursday.
Strawberry Hill Elementary is one of several schools in the district that is single level, with doors leading outside from most classrooms.
It has a student population of 470, and principal Byron Gammel said more than 90 per cent of students returned on Thursday. Within the school, he added that 27 students have opted into the blended online option that will transition students into classrooms at a later date.
“Even though the kids were only here for an hour, I would say, all in all, it was a very successful day,” said Gammel.
“I think the greatest thing to see was having the students and their parents and the entire community arrive at the school, all on the school field, and have that sense of community that we haven’t felt here for a long time.
“The vast majority of our students haven’t been at our school for over six months, and so seeing them out there today and them having the opportunity to connect with their friends and their teachers, it was a good feeling.”
He said almost every room in the school was used during the day, and students were in groups of 10.
Part of that one hour, Gammel said, was used to go over health and safety protocol plans, such as handwashing throughout the day and the day-time custodian.
He added they also talked about the flow of traffic through the building, especially in common places such as the gym, library and music room which will have separate entrances and exits “so kids are only moving in one direction.”
“We’ll never have two classes meeting at those kind of bottle-neck points.”
Meantime, masks aren’t required for elementary students, but Gammel noted, “Interestingly, I would say 90 per cent of our staff and students and parents were wearing masks outside.”
For Surrey Teachers’ Association president Matt Westphal, the lack of a mandate for students to wear masks in classrooms is a point of contention.
He said teachers are “trying to strongly encourage it,” but they can’t require students to wear masks.
That also leads to the lack of barriers and issues with physical distancing in classrooms, Westphal said.
He said the district has been pushing for plexiglass barriers to be put in for teachers and counsellors, but some staff have ended up purchasing their own.
Westphal said funding should have been made available in the summer to plan this out.
While teachers, staff and students have been adjusting to school in the first two days during their brief orientation days, Westphal said the first full week will be the real test.
“Next week we’ll really see if this is the reality of what (their) classrooms will look like.”
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