P.E.I. Opposition, education groups react to province's back-to-school plan

Several people and organizations are reacting to the plan released Wednesday by the Public Schools Branch which highlights rules for when students head back to school Sept. 8.

'How are teachers going to get their breaks?'

Some organizations on P.E.I. still have questions about the province's back-to-school plan. (Halfpoint/Shutterstock)

Different groups and individuals are reacting to the province's back-to-school plan released Wednesday.

The plan highlighted rules for a Sept. 8 return around physical distancing, how students and staff will form groups that will stay together and isolated from other groups, and how cleaning will be stepped up.

"My initial reaction was disappointment," said Green MLA Karla Bernard, Opposition critic for education.

Bernard said she still has questions about the plan.

"They talk about visitor zones in schools," Bernard said, of plans to have areas sectioned off so visitors, like parents can drop off lunch.

Opposition education critic Karla Bernard says she is concerned about bus drivers in regard to back-to-school plans. (Sally Pitt/CBC)

In order to have that in place, she said schools will have to staff someone to be ready at the door for when a visitor comes. She said there was also mention of having extra staff to deal with students coming off buses.

"How are teachers going to get their breaks?" she said. "And how are there going to be extra staff hired to accommodate this because our schools were already at capacity long before COVID-19 hit," she said.

She said the province needs to be thinking about overburdening the system.

Bus drivers

Bernard said she is also concerned about bus drivers. There is an expectation that bus drivers will keep a record of who is on the bus every day and monitor symptoms.

"School bus drivers have a stressful enough job getting children to and from school safely," she said.

"What are we going to do to support bus drivers? One bus driver on a bus is not going to be enough."

CUPE represents bus drivers on the Island. The union says concerns drivers have are not addressed in the province's plan. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

School bus drivers on the Island are represented through the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

"We were optimistic that the operational plan would address the health and safety concerns that we have regarding the inability for staff and students to social distance on school buses and in most school environments," an email from CUPE representatives said, adding it doesn't feel their concerns are addressed in the plan.

The union said it will continue to work with government and hopes to meet with the Chief Public Health Office next week.

Bernard said she feels as though the province is shifting the burden from government onto schools and the plan doesn't seem realistic.

"It's just not fair."

We are still concerned about the availability of substitute teachers.— Aldene Smallman, P.E.I. Teachers' Federation

However, Bernard said she was happy to see the province plans to go ahead with physical education and music classes.

Aldene Smallman, president of P.E.I. Teachers' Federation, said the organization thinks the best place for students' mental health is back in a physical classroom.

"We are going to provide ongoing feedback throughout the plan's implementation," she said

"We all agree that safety is first and foremost and it is paramount that we feel we are safe in returning."

Substitute teachers?

Smallman said this plan is a start, but she wants more clarification. She said she is worried about the transmission of COVID-19 in school situations where physical distancing may be limited. 

Students will be required to bring a non-medical mask to school, but wearing that mask is only strongly recommended, not required.

There's a lot of answers in that document, so I hope that everyone will take some time to review it.— Heather Mullen, P.E.I. Home and School Federation

She said the federation has been consulted in the process, but she worried about staffing issues and was hoping capped class sizes would be part of the plan.

"We are still concerned about the availability of substitute teachers, this was a concern even prior to the pandemic," she said.

"Teachers have consistently gone to work not feeling well."

Smallman said she hopes to continue discussions with the province around those concerns. She said she has heard from teachers who are anxious about returning to the classroom.

'I do think it's a plan that is keeping the safety of the students foremost as well as the safety of the staff,' says Heather Mullens, vice president of the P.E.I. Home and School Federation. (Nicole Williams/CBC)

Heather Mullen, vice president of the P.E.I. Home and School Federation, said there is a 31-page document to go along with the plans announced by the province Wednesday.

"It seems like they covered a lot of the details," Mullen said. She said she had questions about how lockers will be used, how recess will be handled and how parents can pick up their children if they want to.

"There's a lot of answers in that document, so I hope that everyone will take some time to review it," she said.

Mullen said she is happy with the details of the plan so far.

"I do think it's a plan that is keeping the safety of the students foremost as well as the safety of the staff," she said.

"I was quite pleased and I do feel fairly confident in sending my children back to school."

There are a lot more rules students will have to follow, but Mullen said students may adapt quicker than adults to changes put in place because of COVID-19.

"I mean if children have been out to the stores or to a restaurant or even to a park ... all of these same guidelines exist in our society today," she said.

"They adapt very quickly, they grab their mask, their face shields, they tell me when I am not six feet away from another adult."

More from CBC P.E.I.

With files from Nicole Williams


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