British Columbia

The new normal: School for children of essential workers and a look at what the future may hold

As school district officials decide when and how to reopen classrooms in B.C., educators are ironing out the wrinkles for the 5,000 students who are already in classes.

No shared equipment, lots of hand sanitizer and reminders to 'stay in your bubble'

A student waiting in line for the bathroom at the Essential Serivce Workers School in the West Vancouver School District. Students can only be in the bathroom one at a time to ensure social distancing. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

As schools in B.C. work toward fully reopening next fall, 5,000 students — most of them children of essential service workers — have already been in the class for weeks and may provide a glimpse of what's ahead. 

Foam pool noodles and hula hoops are used to remind kids about staying apart. And hand sanitizer sits on top of almost every desk in the hallways and classes where 33 of those children learn and play at an Essential Service Workers School in West Vancouver's Hollyburn Elementary School. 

They come from all over the district which normally teaches 3,000 students in 14 elementary schools, now closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Teachers there are "building the airplane as they fly it," says Sandra-Lynn Shortall, the director of instruction for the West Vancouver school district. 

"We've had to rebuild a school context within a very short period of time and we've had to support our children and families so we are doing our part during the global pandemic," Shortall said.

The school accepts children from ages five to 12 and is open from 7 am to 7 pm to accommodate their parents' long working hours. 

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'Stay in your bubble'

With about a week to prepare, Shortall says teachers needed to create more space for students to physically distance themselves from each other. The foyer of the school was transformed into a makeshift office and parents were directed to wave goodbye from the courtyard as their children entered the only entrance to the building — one by one.

"They are greeted by our receptionist who talks to them and does a really gentle health check to ensure it's heathy children and adults coming into our school environment only," Shortall said.

Kids wash their hands before entering classrooms which are also separated by empty rooms.

For every two educators, there are a maximum of eight children. 

Kids socially distance in class at an Essential Service Workers School in West Vancouver. (Ben Nelms)

Walking through the hallways, on floors now emblazoned with colourful directional arrows and footsteps, Shortall reminds kids to "stay in their bubble."

"Everyone has their own learning space which includes their own basket of learning materials, so there's no communal shared resources," Shortall says.

While the kids have adapted to air high fives and air hugs now, kindergarten teacher Farah Babul says it was challenging when they arrived about four weeks ago. 

"There were tears, getting used to routines of washing hands, not bursting each others bubbles and social distancing with teachers," Babul said.

About every week, one to two new children are welcomed into the school. 

Across the province, similar classrooms in independent and public schools are providing education to 4,700 children of first responders and health care workers and 300 special needs students that need extra support.

Tough transition 

Babul said on top of the emotional and social pressures of the pandemic, the children had to get used to a new way of being in school, being away from their old friends and teachers, and meeting new ones.

Students at the school learn numeracy and literacy, but she says at the beginning it was a place for kids to have a sense of normalcy and the comfort of a routine.

For teachers, it's also been an adjustment.

Teachers at the Essential Service Workers School in West Vancouver use pool noodles and gloves to socially distances and to stop the spread of COVID-19.   (Ben Nelms)

"Even when you are handing out something it is a bit of a challenge, or even leaning over to try to help them with their printing, its really challenging," Babul added.

Babul is normally an English-language learner teacher, but now, at the new school, she's teaching kindergarten.

Julie deLaplante was a French teacher before the pandemic and now she's helping Grade 3 students with remote online learning taught by their home school teachers.

"It's really hard to imagine all 30 of them being in a room again, unless there's a vaccine, it's hard to think of what September will look like," deLaplante said.

Not time to relax

Bit by bit some restrictions are slowly being lifted at some schools as the Ministry of Education takes direction from public health authorities.

"This certainly is not a time to be complacent or relaxed, we have to follow the health and safety recommendations and above all make sure our children are safe during this time," said Shortall. 

While drafting plans to ease some restrictions this school year, B.C. Premier John Hogan says B.C. is preparing for a  possible full resumption of school by September.


Angela Sterritt

CBC Reporter

Angela Sterritt is an ​award-winning investigative journalist. She is the host of Land Back, a six-part CBC British Columbia original podcast that uncovers land theft and land reclamation in Canada. Sterritt is known for her impactful journalism on the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in Canada. She is a proud member of the Gitxsan Nation.