Students face staggered starts, some smaller classes, and maybe different schools in fall
Education Minister Dominic Cardy says parents should prepare for changes to how their children get to school
New Brunswick students returning to school this fall will face staggered start times, altered schedules and, in the case of high schoolers, some continued home learning.
Education Minister Dominic Cardy outlined the plan Friday morning, cautioning that it's still a work in progress and he doesn't have answers for "every single question" parents might have.
But he said different approaches would apply to different grade levels:
For students in kindergarten to Grade 2, there will be smaller groups of 15 that will not be allowed to interact with other students outside the group.
For those in Grades 3-5, class sizes will depend on circumstances but the same grouping system will apply, with students distancing from other groups.
Middle school students will be in regularly-sized classrooms but will have to observe physical distancing from other groups.
High school students will spend some days at school and some at home, which Cardy called "full-time blended learning." Every student will be at school "at least every second day," said deputy minister of education George Daley, to allow for distancing.
Cardy said the measures are designed to reduce as much as possible the risk of transmission of the coronavirus through the school system, recognizing that New Brunswick has been relatively successful at containing its spread.
"We have to be ready for a return for COVID-19," he said.
"We want as much as possible to make sure that our school system can stay open. We want to make sure as well that we address any anxiety that parents and teachers and students have about a return to school," he told a news conference.
"These modifications we felt were a compromise between a full normal return and some of the more drastic steps that other jurisdictions have proposed, going to full online learning and so on."
The different approaches at different grade levels reflects how classes are organized, Daley said.
Because K-8 students stay with the same class all day, grouping and distancing is easier. But high school students take a range of courses and end up mixing with different groups of students in each class, making group distancing impossible.
That's why having high schoolers attend on alternating days was needed to open up the space for distancing, he said.
"That makes sense to me," said parent Jake Reid, whose younger daughter will enter Grade 11 at Fredericton High School this fall. "My bigger questions are around exactly how they'll do this."
Reid said it's difficult to imagine how students in the sprawling school will be able to maintain distancing in common areas such as hallways.
Heather May, a Moncton mother whose son with dyslexia and ADHD is returning to public school this fall after three years in a private school program, says she's "incredibly concerned" about whether he'll get the attention he requires.
"I don't know how that's going to affect him or how he's going to fit into this plan," she said. "We need extra resources for him already."
Cardy also told parents of K-8 students that they should be prepared for changes to how their children get to school and for staggered start times for the school day.
Details of those changes have yet to be worked out and will depend on individual operational plans to be developed by each of the province's almost 300 schools.
Students might be placed in different schools
Schools need to develop individual plans because some are full or overcrowded while others are partially empty, which will affect how they have to change their busing and start times.
With overcrowded schools, "we may have to look at having kids in different schools than they were at the beginning of this last school year, but we'll look at that on a case-by-case basis, and as much as possible look to minimize disruption for students and teachers."
High schools that already have smaller classes and more space "may be able to return as normal" and not require students to spend alternating days at home, Daley said.
Options for students when they're not in school include coursework, online learning and internships.
Students with individual learning plans who need extra levels of support may be at school every day as well, he said.
A need for more teachers
Cardy said the system will have to hire more teachers to handle students being divided up into smaller groups. He didn't have any updated figures on what that will cost or how much savings during the spring could make up some of that cost.
Public schools have been closed since March 13 to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in New Brunswick.
Earlier this week, the province announced plans to redeploy 70 positions, including literacy, numeracy and diversity leads, across the anglophone sector of the school system because more homeroom teachers will be needed this fall.
He also said he wants educators to have the latitude this fall to help students who have fallen behind academically during this spring's abrupt, ad-hoc shift to home learning.
"We're going to be giving teachers and schools the freedom to make adjustments to the learning plan so they can meet the students where they are" in their learning, he said.
The future of physical education classes and school sports will depend on individual schools and their operational plans. In elementary schools, some gymnasiums may need to be converted for classroom space.
Cardy also said some of the ideas presented in his discussion paper last year on education reform, including mixed-grade classrooms and changes to French immersion, are now on hold so officials can focus on COVID-19 adaptation.
The minister acknowledged that the home learning plan he had to put in place quickly in April was a stop-gap measure.
"The system isn't designed to support long-term learning at home," he said. "There have been gaps and significant gaps in learning that need to be addressed, and quickly."
But he said the early shutdown of schools gave teachers and district officials more time to prepare properly for the fall.
Since the closure, students have been doing varying levels of school work sent home by their teachers.