Worries and excitement as P.E.I. students head back to school

Reaction from groups involved in P.E.I.'s education system is mixed as students prepare to head back to class Monday for the first time in 2022. 

Staffing, sticking to safety protocols among top concerns for some Island teachers

P.E.I.'s Home and School Federation believes parents will be able to keep their children home for a few days next week without having to sign up for homeschooling.  (Holly Caruk/CBC)

Reaction from groups involved in P.E.I.'s education system is mixed as students prepare to head back to class Monday for the first time in 2022. 

The president of P.E.I.'s Home and School Federation said she's happy with what she considers good, clear information about the return to class from the Public Schools Branch to parents so far.

"We have a lot of excited and nervous students at home and I think a lot of excited and nervous parents too, so the more information and clarity that we can get about what the plan is and what might happen, it's really helpful," said Heather Mullen, federation president.

Mullen said the home and school group had a lot of questions and concerns about back to school at the end of December. She said it's different now. 

"I feel a lot more comfortable about the plans in place. We have stronger measures than other provinces," Mullen said. "A combination with the masking and the testing, they've done improvements with the filtration systems — there's a lot of elements we are doing in P.E.I. that we are not seeing in other provinces.

"We are even doing contact tracing, which other provinces have done away with." 

Staff at Spring Park school handed out new masks and COVID-19 test kits to parents Thursday afternoon. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

She is concerned about families who are struggling with what will happen if they choose to keep their students out of class for a short period of time. 

On Thursday, director of English education Tamara Hubley-Little said remote learning will no longer be an option for students once school is back in session. 

Hubley-Little said parents have the option to homeschool. That would involve taking control of their children's education for the next five months. 

But Mullen said some families are still anxious about COVID-19 circulating and are finding that kind of decision hard. 

"As a parent, it's our decision whether we send our students to school," she said. "Sometimes we might have to keep our student home because in this case, parents feel anxious or uncomfortable about the situation."

Mullen said she believes parents will be able to keep their children home for a few days next week without having to sign up for homeschooling. 

"You can have a student absent for a few days and we don't necessarily expect the teachers to teach them online, but you would ask your student to catch up on some homework," she said. 

"There are ways to have your child absent for a few days without necessarily switching right to homeschooling." 

She said that she understands that the staffing at Island schools means that a hybrid of online and in-class learning might not be realistic. 

Hubley-Little also said there are resources available for families who are anxious about the return. 

Teachers concerned about staffing, safety

Some educators, meanwhile, said they still have questions about heading back to class Monday morning. 

The P.E.I. Teachers' Federation is concerned a return to in-class learning could lead to disruptions.

"We all want to be back in classrooms," said Aldene Smallman, federation president. "We know how difficult the last two weeks have been."

The first and foremost thing for everybody is that staff and students can operate as safely as possible as we try to reduce the transmission of COVID in these buildings.​​​​​— Aldene Smallman, president, P.E.I. Teachers' Federation

But she said teachers are concerned about adherence to the masking and cohorting policy, and also have concerns about the testing policy being on the honour system.

She said there's also concerns about how the back-to-school plan could eventually affect staffing.

"Our members would certainly have a lot of concerns around the operational side of how this plays out in terms of absenteeism, disruptions to learning, substitute availability," Smallman said. "We know that with school staff quarantines possibly coming in the coming weeks, we know that the system is placed under additional pressure on staffing capacity."

Smallman said the federation will keep looking for clarification on the issues ahead of Monday's return.

"The first and foremost thing for everybody is that staff and students can operate as safely as possible as we try to reduce the transmission of COVID in these buildings," she said. 

"We all know that's the best place for students to be, there's no disputing that." 

Teachers were consulted, province says

On the contrary to concerns that teachers were not consulted in the government's decision, the Department of Education said that's not the case. 

"The statement made on January 27, 2022 that the '[PEITF] … was not consulted in yesterday's decision to reopen schools to in-person instruction' is simply not true," a letter from the Department of Education to the P.E.I. Teachers' federation said. 

According to a statement sent to CBC News, the Department of Education said "there have been ongoing conversations with the leadership at the Teachers' Federation" on a return-to-school plan.

"There have been a number of meetings, phone calls, emails, town hall meetings and opportunities for feedback and input from all stakeholders including P.E.I. Teachers Federation, CUPE, P.E.I. Home and School Association, Office of the Child and Youth Advocate Office and others," the Department of Education statement said.

The department said the Official Opposition and the Liberal third party were also invited to a town hall meeting along with the CPHO and Health P.E.I. 

Parents, Liberal MLA concerned

As the PSB announced that online learning will not be provided for students who stay home, some parents say the lack of an online learning alternative is inconsiderate for vulnerable children and family members.

Parent Story Sheidow says the government should consider how their decision affects immunocompromised children and family members. (Submitted by Story Sheidow)

"We either had to submit an intent to homeschool or send [my daughter] back on Monday," said parent Story Sheidow.

"It just felt like it really didn't leave a lot of room for kids who might be immunocompromised or have immunocompromised family members, or even parents that are nervous and just feel like they want a little more time."

If children who are required to isolate have a means of learning during isolation, parents who choose to keep their kids home should have the same, Sheidow said.

"No one is saying that we expect teachers to create two sets of curriculum, bowever if they're sending curriculum home to kids isolating and are sick, there's no reason why other parents with immunocompromised children can't do the same," she said.

Liberal MLA Gord McNeilly said having children back to classrooms "needed to happen," but he is concerned the PSB isn't providing learning options for parents who choose to keep their children home. 

'It has been a stressful time for everyone,' Liberal MLA Gord McNeilly says. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

"The students need to stay connected," McNeilly said. "All I did recently was ask for just two weeks that we can develop some sort of hybrid transition. That might allow us some time to get some kids double-vaxxed, and parents to figure out how to move forward."

No parent wants to keep their children home in a normal situation, they're only worried about rising cases, McNeilly said. 

"They're watching cases, they're watching the media, it has been a stressful time for everyone. During this transition we're going to have to support the kids, and I don't think strong policy is necessarily the best step," he said.

With files from Island Morning and Steve Bruce


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